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Hockey is an extraordinarily fluid game and often players wind up all over the ice, but some players or lines tend to keep their positions more frequently and stay on their side of the ice. The primary reason is that players become most comfortable making certain plays the same way over and over. For example, they like to stickhandle a particular way in the neutral zone or dump the puck in on their forehand. Playing one side versus the other can accentuate a player’s strengths or expose his weaknesses.

Sidney Crosby will be returning very soon. James Neal is back for tonight’s regular season finale. Media and fans have been feverishly discussing new line combinations. Going into the final regular season game, it has been reported that Bylsma was moving Jarome Iginla back to left wing to play with Evgeni Malkin and Neal back at his customary spot at right wing.

Moving Iginla to LW seems misguided, but I understand the thought process. Bylsma wants to keep Kunitz and Dupuis with Crosby. Crosby has been out for about a month and will be rusty. He will need a few games to get his timing back. Putting him with wingers who know his game inside and out will help him get back up to speed more quickly.

But Iginla was obviously uncomfortable on his off-wing a few weeks ago. He has played RW his entire career and for some players the transition is difficult. But why is that? Why can’t players adjust easily?

Handedness matters a great deal when forming line combinations and determining on which side to play certain guys. Playing the off-wing in the offensive zone allows for better shooting angles and opens snipers up for one-timers. But it also requires more plays to be made on the backhand in the defensive and neutral zone. It is harder to shield the puck with your body. When coming through center ice, you are stickhandling on the center-ice side of your body where there are not only more sticks and traffic, but you lack a high-percentage safe play should pressure come. When trying to dump the puck in toward the corner nearest to you (left corner coming down left side), a righty has to dump the puck in across an opposing player’s body. When a player gets the puck on his off-wing in the neutral zone, he will often get rid of it quickly even before he gets pressured, because it is so much easier to make a mistake or turn the puck over.

Guys who play the off-wing are often great shooters who are either excellent at stickhandling (like Alex Ovechkin before switching to RW) or rarely carry the puck through the neutral zone (like Neal). Neither Neal nor Iginla are the type of players you often see being a one-man breakout and swooping through center ice with the puck. Few players are capable of being consistent neutral zone puck carriers on their off-wing.

But with these line configurations, you have two players on their off-wing on Malkin’s line. Both Neal at RW and Iginla at LW will rely heavily on Malkin to carry the mail through the neutral zone. While Malkin is at his best galloping through center ice, other teams know he does not like dumping the puck in. He often tries to split or dance defenders at the blue line. Knowing how much Malkin will be expected to gain the zone himself, expect opposing defensemen to try to meet him hard at their blue line. Expect opposing forwards to try to pinch or double team him at the blue line to try to force him to dump the puck in. For all the elite talent on this line, they could struggle to gain the zone with possession.

There has been a growing area of statistical research into zone entries. The research has turned up an incredibly valuable insight: gaining the zone with possession of the puck results in more than twice as many shots, scoring chances, and goals (Source). Possession is paramount. Teams who can breakout and work through the neutral zone to gain the offensive zone with possession a higher percentage of the time (or prevent other teams from doing so) are simply going to be more successful. Dumping the puck in is considered a “safe” play, because mistakes at the blue line are often costly. But it also greatly limits the team’s prospects for generating shots, chances, and goals. That does not mean players should never dump the puck in, as gaining the zone with possession is hard. Just means it is not the optimal play for maximizing possession and offense.

Putting both wingers on their off-wing, especially when one of whom is very new to it, puts the Malkin line in danger of failing to gain the zone with possession consistently and thus generating much less offense than they should. Some teams refuse to play anybody on their off-wing for the reasons I’ve detailed. It is why Adam Oates moved Ovechkin to RW. While I am far from the first to suggest the top six line combinations below, they make a great deal of sense, because you have to get through the neutral zone before getting into offensive zone. Handedness plays a key part of it.

Dupuis (LH) – Crosby (LH) – Iginla (RH)
Kunitz (LH) – Malkin (LH) – Neal (LH)