Why the line of Matt Kassian, Zack Smith, and Chris Neil worked
On Thursday night, Paul MacLean tried something... interesting. To match the size and physicality of the Philadelphia Flyers, he took Zack Smith and Chris Neil out of their typical shutdown roles and lined up little-used enforcer Matt Kassian on their wing. To the surprise of many, it worked.
The Ottawa Senators ended a five-game losing streak by beating the Philadelphia Flyers by a 3-1 score. Although many were calling for the removal of little-used enforcer Matt Kassian from the lineup, he stayed in--and, in fact, was promoted. And he was part of a line that, surprisingly, played a significant role in the win.
Without a doubt, it was Kassian's best game as an Ottawa Senator, and he played a career-high 11:03 in it. He also finished the night with a Corsi* of +6, while linemates Zack Smith and Chris Neil were both +7. In the past, Kassian was never fully trusted by Paul MacLean--especially on the road, when the line matching is out of MacLean's hands. So why was he able to be so effective on Thursday night?
With all due respect and credit to Neil and Kassian, the biggest factor in that success was Z. Smith. While Kassian, Neil, and many of the Sens' defencemen have struggled mightily to advance the puck out of the zone this season, Smith is a capable supporting forward--a role MacLean asks his centremen to fill--and regularly goes deep in the defensive end to aid his teammates in gaining and keeping control of the puck. This season, it's meant he's less of a physical firecracker on the ice, because he's not allowed to risk getting caught out of position in order to finish meaningless (if instantly gratifying) bodychecks. Smith was the lynchpin that kept the line together, and his responsibility and positional play allowed Neil and Kassian to play their standard physical style.
Neil, although less mobile and capable with the puck than Smith, is also a pretty decent skater. He spent far more time than Smith chasing hits and less time worrying about the puck, but oftentimes that seemed to work--his hits would force opponents to make mistakes or lose the puck, and Smith (or one of the defencemen on the ice) would gather it up and re-take control. Neil was also good at causing problems in front of the net, which is his modus operandi in the offensive zone (no matter how often he tries a wrap-around, he's still more effective as a screen). There's no denying that Neil is a capable hockey player, especially as a physical player.
Finally, Kassian was tasked with perhaps the most simple of responsibilities: He was in charge of finishing all checks, of making himself an obstacle opponents would have to go through, of making life difficult for Flyers defenders, and of standing in front of the net. That's not a criticism of his play, simply an acknowledgement of his limitations (speed-wise). As MacLean surely realizes, Kassian is most effective when told to skate in straight lines and keep things simple. Standing in front of the net is how he scored his only goal this season because it works: Goalies have a hard time seeing around such a big man, and defenders can't move him.
Of course, looking strictly at the Senators on the ice misses a pretty big component of their success: The struggles of the Philadelphia Flyers. They're a team that's struggling, especially deep in the lineup, and this line (the fourth, by a slim margin, based on ice time) matched up nicely against their on-ice counterparts. So it remains to be seen if this is the kind of success you could expect from this line on any given night, or if it only works against weaker teams with highly troubled defensive groups. We may find out on Monday night.
* - If you're still not sure what Corsi is, check out this intro Adnan wrote a while ago; basically, it's a measure of shots attempted (shots, goals, blocked shots, and missed shots) by your team less those by the other team, intended to serve as a measure of puck possession.