In today’s NHL, the traditional checking line has gone the way of rotary phones. Gone are the days of coaches rolling three defensive-minded forwards, usually via the third line, to hound opposing top players.
But old habits die hard, even for a progressive coach like the Bruins’ Bruce Cassidy. He considers Danton Heinen, Riley Nash, and David Backes his checking line, even if the threesome does not qualify under the previous classification.
“Nash has always been more of a checking center with some offensive upside,” Cassidy said. “So you throw them all in there and you’ve got, with a little bit of physicality, guys that can win a faceoff, two of them. If you’re stuck, all three play the penalty kill. Two of them are on the power play. So you’ve got an element of both.”
The 2006-07 season qualifies as the old days because of how the game has since evolved. That year, Anaheim won the Stanley Cup with a full-on checking line of Travis Moen, Sami Pahlsson, and Rob Niedermayer. They did a number on Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, and Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa’s top offensive players. Whenever Spezza opened his wallet, Pahlsson, the ex-Bruin, popped out from between the twenties.
The game has progressed to where a check-first group like Anaheim’s probably would not be as successful in its defensive endeavors. Most of today’s teams are built with three attacking lines and one energy threesome. Cassidy regularly rolls Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak in the classic deployment as checkers against top lines. But they are not considered a checking line in the old sense because of the hazards they present on offense.
The rebooted version of Anaheim’s unit would be Pittsburgh’s former third line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel. They are fast, speedy, and cerebral forwards who played defense for coach Mike Sullivan by sniffing for chances.
For now, Cassidy might have found a similar threesome.
“The key to that is Kessel,” Cassidy said. “The two other guys have a mentality of checking. But if you make a mistake and don’t work as an offensive line, he’s the guy that’s going to score on you.
“I like that part of it. There has to be a threat. That’s where Bergy’s line has always been good no matter who he plays with. Because he can make plays. He’s always a threat the other way.”
Cassidy does not regularly think about his short-lived days in Washington. But on Friday, the ex-Capitals coach reminisced about his third line of Steve Konowalchuk, Jeff Halpern, and Mike Grier. It roamed the prehistoric ice of 2003-04. But Cassidy’s current incarnation shares elements with the line he assembled 14 years ago.
Like Konowalchuk, Heinen is a left-shot wing with good wheels. Nash, the ex-Cornell center, fills the role of Halpern, a fellow right-shot center and Ivy Leaguer (Princeton, Class of 1999). Holliston’s Grier was the Backes of his day: a punishing right wing who would go on north-south hitting rampages while softly tucking in pucks.
Today’s line is not one Cassidy and his colleagues saw falling into place. Neither Backes nor Heinen was active at the start of the season. Backes was shelved because of diverticulitis, a condition that would lead to a removal of 10 inches of his colon. Heinen was in Providence, having failed to make the team out of camp. Nash started the year between Tim Schaller and Noel Acciari, whose games could be generously termed as offensively challenged. The line didn’t even make it out of Game 1 after a P.K. Subban slap shot caved in Acciari’s finger.
Backes recovered from surgery quicker than expected. The Bruins had always projected the ex-Blues captain, when healthy, to be their No. 3 right wing behind Pastrnak and Anders Bjork. Cassidy believed Nash, known for being defensively dependable, could express more offense. But Heinen has been the most sparkling revelation on the 2017-18 roster.
The Bruins expected good things from Bjork and Jake DeBrusk when including both on the opening roster. They knew they had a prodigious talent in defenseman Charlie McAvoy. But they thought Heinen started the season where he deserved to be: in the minors.
There were never reservations about the skilled winger’s feet and hands. Heinen’s shortcomings were in his heart.
As an NHLer, during previous promotions, Heinen shriveled in puck battles, whether it was out of fear, inexperience, or miscomprehension. There has been no appearance of such deficiencies in Heinen’s approach during his 19-game stay following his recall — which, to be sure, is for good.
Heinen is playing a man’s game: hard on pucks, committed to positioning, and relentless in battles. The second-year pro has figured out that skill alone does not guarantee an NHL paycheck.
“I know in college he was pretty talented. Growing up, he was,” Nash said. “But at this level, the really talented and the talented, there’s a little bit of separation. But I think he’s learning how to make those little plays through traffic. This game is so fast, you need to make plays through sticks, through skates.
“This year compared to last year, I think he’s night and day, just how strong he is on the puck. The way he makes plays through traffic, I think he’s been fantastic.”
Backes scored twice against the Coyotes. Heinen punched in a second-effort goal. Nash had two helpers. Not bad for a checking line.