The art of line shuffling

Patrick Barron/Daily
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By Jeremy Summitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 16, 2014

In hockey, finding the right combinations can feel like trying to crack the code to a stubborn safe.

That's why Michigan coach Red Berenson broke up what had been Michigan’s top line all season just two weeks after a five-game unbeaten streak.

Forward JT Compher centered that line with junior forwards Alex Guptill and Derek DeBlois on the wings in November and December. The trio combined for 34 points before Michigan’s four-game skid began Dec. 27, providing a much-needed spark in the offensive zone.

“They did for a while,” Berenson said. “Then our whole team stopped scoring, so we’re still looking for options.”

For coaches, there’s an art to crafting the best line pairings. Through the early season, it’s all part of finding that winning formula and ironing out the kinks — seeing which player complements whom and eventually determining which role each line will embrace.

Sometimes, a line meshes so perfectly that a trio of forwards earns a quirky nickname, like the Flying Frenchmen of the National Hockey League’s Montreal Canadiens in 1917. And beginning in the 1990s, The Grind Line anchored the Detroit Red Wings to four Stanley Cup Championships.

There are more comical groups like the Banana Line, and for Chicago fans, the Pony, Pappy and Party Lines.

But there aren’t any nicknames in Ann Arbor for the 14th-ranked Wolverines. Not yet, at least.

Berenson has been scribbling line charts since he began coaching in 1979 with the St. Louis Blues. And even though he’s been Michigan’s head coach for 30 years, he still finds himself trying to get the numbers right on the line charts in mid-January.

“We’re still looking for lines that might be a better combination,” Berenson said after a practice this week.

Because the Wolverines’s offense has been dormant the past month, he’s shuffled them.

During the Great Lakes Invitational on Dec. 28, the team was shut out for the first time in nearly a year. It was as if someone had reset the locks to Berenson’s line charts after he’d come so close to breaking the code.

“It’s tough sometimes when you go into a slump,” Guptill said. “Sometimes, you have to change things up.”

That’s how hockey goes. You have highs and then you have lows where the net seems as small as a hotel room safe. Berenson’s been tinkering with lineups for long enough to know that it takes a repetitive and meticulous process to find a perfect combination.

“It might be a better balance of offense (and) defense, might be a little better chemistry,” Berenson said. “We’re continuously reevaluating individuals and forwards and defense on our team. So, nothing is set.”

Guptill said you just have to leave the combinations up to the coaching staff and play your own game. During this week’s practice, he’s been skating with DeBlois, but freshman Justin Selman has taken over at center.

Heading into the second half of the season, Berenson is hoping his line charts provoke more solutions than inquiries. There are times when combinations don’t work out and he heads back to the drawing board. Then there’s a point of realization, when an experiment shows signs of promise and even the players know it’s working.

“I think there are those moments,” Guptill said. “You play with a few guys sometimes, guys in practice that you do well with, kind of a little bit of a feeling, but you never really know until you get in a game.”

Those “aha!” moments are what Berenson strives for. When he sits in his office writing his players’s names in the appropriate places on a lineup card, he never knows if it’s going to work.

Circumstances might change, and he’s forced to adapt, just like any good hockey mind does. So through Michigan’s final bye week of the season, Berenson will have plenty of time for tinkering. He’ll just have to wait until game day for the locks to pop open.