17 October 2014

To think about: looking for chemistry & balance.

When Paul MacLean shifted Bobby Ryan to the second line somewhere in between the second and third game of the season, the rationale seemed, well, rational. In separating our lusciously fruitful most prominently productive scoring forward from the hot duo of Turris and MacArthur, the Sens would be able to roll at least two skill trios in a 1a/1b-type split against opponents. This would thus avoid the Turris-centred line being killed possession-wise (although the boys at hockey-graphs have speculated whether matching competition truly has an effect at the team level). So the new second-line became Ryan-Zibanejad-Chiasson, while Stone moved up to play with Turris and MacArthur. Seemed logical.

Did it work? Uhhh, not quite. It's been only two games, but those two games in and of themselves were immensely puzzling: in the Florida game, Ryan-Zibanejad-Chiasson as a line received almost exclusively offensive zone starts. In the Colorado home opener, they received zero at even strength (and around 50% in all situations, accounting for the many power plays and penalty kills). In the former, the entire line was under 30% Corsi For; in the latter, under 40% Corsi For. Baffling.

Yet maybe not entirely baffling, after watching the games. Zibanejad and Chiasson play distinctively different styles than Turris and MacArthur do: as big, strapping bodies, they tend to utilize chip-&-chase play effectively to attain the offensive zone, characterized by a very north-south charging of the defence. In particular, Zibby evidently enjoys plowing straight through opposing players as though they weren't there, and Chiasson's touted role as a "big body" seems to indicate that he falls into this category as well.

While Ryan is more than capable of using his body to gain himself space to move the puck, that isn't how Turris and MacArthur tend to play. Turris as a centre seems to model after Spezza in the way that he likes to manouevre in between checkers with minimal contact to leave them chasing, rather than using brute strength to part them like a sea. (This is one of the reasons I was surprised Ryan and Spezza didn't work out... but maybe it was Michalek who soured the whole deal.) These two utilize near-telepathic passes and a can't-touch-this cycle game to keep the puck in the offensive zone, and as seen last season, it worked well with Ryan.

Now that our favourite Bobby is being asked to click with two rather different players, perhaps the holes are showing themselves. While Zibanejad and Chiasson grind hard on a heavy forechecking cycle, Ryan sends slap passes delicately but forcefully ("delicately but forcefully": the Sens' new slogan this year) through the slot and around the net. They almost seem to be playing different sports.

Not everyone finds chemistry together as quickly as ex-captain Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky (RIP both), of course. But then it becomes a question of how long we can reasonably wait for the new second line to find its wheels. Mixing and jumbling the top two lines is a bit more significant than when doing the same for the bottom two, especially if the whole purpose of the exercise is to create a balanced offence. And when considering that Chiasson and Zibanejad have never played together before this season either, there's a lot up in the air regarding this line.

We're looking at a miniscule sample size at this point, obviously, and it's nevertheless founded on solid principles. It simply remains to be seen whether the players can cash in on them.


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