For college coaches, the inexact science of line chart construction is a constant challenge
For most teams, the first 16 players in uniform on any given night are easy to determine based on past performance, if everyone is healthy. But picking those last half-dozen spots in a college team's lineup can be a gut-wrenching challenge for the coach upon whose shoulders the decision ultimately falls.
During his nearly two decades as head coach of the Minnesota Gophers men, Don Lucia had a quick answer when asked which goalie he would be starting for any given upcoming series.
“I don’t decide who plays,” he would say. “The players do.”
That was not a coach brushing off his authority to determine the final lineup, it was his way of saying that what a player shows during the week in practice and what they have done or not done in previous games will determine where they end up on Friday and Saturday – in the lineup, or in a nice suit, sitting in the audience with friends.
College hockey coaches on both the men’s and women’s side admit, it can be a tricky business. Teams can dress 22 players for any given game – 19 skaters and three goalies. Most college rosters have between 25 and 28 players. That means, barring injuries, there will be a few players who are what is known as a “healthy scratch” for each game.
Current Gophers men’s coach Bob Motzko has often said that he does not make out his lines in the summer, waiting to see what clicks in practice before assembling a line chart, which is the map of which 12 forwards will begin the game playing with whom, and which six defensemen will be paired, at least initially. Of course, the lines that start the game can be and are often juggled almost immediately due to penalties, injuries and the need for a spark on the ice.
As a coach, there’s no magic. You’re not guessing, but at the same time, you’re not always sure you’re right. The older I get in my coaching career, I’m able to admit that sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.
Generally, by the first month of the season, the first nine forwards and the first four defensemen are relatively easy to determine. Motzko does not spend a second deliberating whether Logan Cooley, Matthew Knies or Brock Faber will be in the lineup for a game. But for every coach, filling out those last half-dozen spots on the line chart can be a challenging task.
“It’s the worst part of coaching to identify and say ‘here’s our group this weekend’ when that means you’re going to leave somebody out,” said St. Thomas women’s coach Joel Johnson. “As a coach, there’s no magic. You’re not guessing, but at the same time, you’re not always sure you’re right. The older I get in my coaching career, I’m able to admit that sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.”
For a relatively new Division I team like the Tommies — still trying to find its way in the WCHA — Johnson admitted his line charts are less predictable and he is willing to mix in nearly every rostered player at some point to see what they can do. Injuries during the season can make some decisions easier, as players who are unable to perform sit out and others take their place. And in a college setting, players can be given a night off sometimes if they are struggling academically, or if they have a major project due and hockey would prove to be a distraction.
Players who get to the Division I level have usually been among the best handful of talents on their previous team’s roster, whether it was juniors or high school. They were recruited under the premise that they could and would be an important cog in their program’s machine. They are not used to watching the game from the stands while others are in the spotlight, and a night off can be hard on the psyche. Johnson acknowledged as much, saying that his program stresses transparency, and if a player will be a healthy scratch, they will always know why.
“We’re using all of the data from practice and from comparative stuff and evaluations in games to say, ‘Here’s what we think is the best approach for this weekend in this spot,’” said Johnson, who coached Team USA to a silver medal at the 2022 Winter Olympics. “You come up with a plan and you say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’ And if you win you look smart, and if you don’t there are three or four people in the stands who are disagreeing with you.”
And like Lucia and other coaches before him, Johnson said the decisions ultimately come down to what the players have done, in practice and in previous games, that can make the difference between being in the lineup and being in street clothes on any given weekend. He has a simple message to those looking for a more consistent spot on the line chart:
“Put it on tape, and give us a reason why we have to have you in the lineup every weekend,” Johnson said.