When piecing together something like an Olympic roster, hockey people -- and that includes those that are in the game, those that cover the game, and those that simply watch the game -- love to talk about how the idea is not to put together an All-Star team, but to simply put together "a team."
One that has role players, and has every piece perfectly fit together in a complex puzzle that can only be assembled with the right number of scorers, and grinders, and people that "know their role."
It's like that scene in Miracle when Herb Brooks informs Craig Patrick that he is "not looking for the best players," but "looking for the right players."
People love that type of stuff, and they have not only come to believe in it, they eat it up for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And it's one of the most maddening things about the entire selection process.
We saw it play out recently when United States' decision-makers were building their team for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. They omitted some outstanding players, particularly Ottawa Senators forward Bobby Ryan, because each didn't fit a certain role. Their biggest concern with Ryan, as outlined in the Scott Burnside and Kevin Allen pieces following their behind-the-scenes access, was that if Ryan didn't have a place in their top-six, he didn't really fit as a player that could fill a third-or fourth-line role.
I touched on this briefly in the immediate aftermath of the roster announcement, but this line of thinking seems strange and counterproductive considering the players available and style of game that is played in an international competition. The idea that an Olympic team needs to separate players into "top-six" and "bottom-six" roles is completely overthinking the entire process and ignoring why those roles even exist in the modern NHL.
Checking lines and "the bottom six" do not exist because they're a vital part of winning games. They exist because they have to. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Teams in the NHL today all have a pretty similar roster construction. They have their core of five or six impact players that take up a significant portion of their salary cap space (usually about 45 to 50 percent), they rely on their top two lines to provide the bulk of the offense, have a third line that serves as a checking line, and a fourth line that's usually a mix of young players, fringe NHLers, and enforcers whose only purpose is to fight other enforcers around the league.
Some teams vary in this makeup and do a better job of filling out the bottom of their roster (those are usually the teams that win a lot of games and compete for championships, like Chicago for instance), but league-wide most teams follow a similar blue print.
When it comes to the whole bottom six and checking line fascination, well, that is a relatively new phenomenon in the NHL. It never used to be this way.
Why the "checking line" exists in the NHL
Back before the NHL grew into the 30-team monster that it is today, clubs routinely rolled out three (and sometimes even four) lines that were capable of scoring. They have always leaned heavily on star power and relied on their best players to provide the bulk of the scoring -- whether it's been Crosby, Ovechkin, Gretzky, Lemieux, Hull, Mikita, Bossy, Howe, Richard, Lindsay or Conacher, these guys have always been the straw that stirred their team's drink.
But while those players were leading the way and doing the most scoring, there was virtually no difference between a team's second-line scoring and its third-line scoring. It never used to be a top six and bottom six thing; it was more like a top nine and whatever you had left over for a fourth line. If you even had one.
The table here shows an admittedly rough breakdown of what percentage of a teams goals came from each forward line (simply separated by top-three goal scorers, the second three goal-scorers, and then the third group of goal-scorers).
A few things about that. For one, teams started to get far more goal contributions from their defense (which doesn't show up on the chart above, because again, we're only looking at forwards), and first-and second-line scoring has remained pretty consistent. Third-line scoring, however, has pretty steadily decreased.
Is that because teams no longer wanted to roll three scoring lines? Probably not. It probably had more to do with the fact that started in the late 1960s the NHL started to grow, going from six teams to 12 in 1967, and then adding a few teams here and there before it's second big expansion boom in the 1990s and 2000s to get the league to its current 30 team alignment.
More teams meant spreading the talent across the league. Suddenly, there weren't enough scorers to go around for teams to successfully put three forward lines that could provide offense on the ice. The supply didn't match the demand, so teams had to adapt.
Though they probably weren't the first team to have something like this, the idea of a checking line really seemed to take off in the mid-90s when Detroit had so much success with its famed "grind line." Because the NHL, like every other professional sports league, tends to be a copycat league, every other team suddenly felt the need to build its own version because that was the way to win.
The introduction of the salary cap in the mid-2000s only added that, as it's not only difficult to find enough scorers to fill out that many lines, but unless you have a farm system that consistently churns out productive, cheap talent, it's nearly impossible to fit it all underneath the cap. And even if you do build such a team, it's eventually going to get broken up and force you to replenish that depth.
When it comes to building an NHL team, having a checking line, or a shutdown line, is at least understandable. It's difficult to find enough scorers and enough cap space to make it work. If you can though, your team is probably going to be tough to beat (again, just ask the Chicago Blackhawks).
But what excuse do Olympic teams have? Why do they feel the need to go out of their way to bring in players that fill a checking line role, or turn away players like Bobby Ryan because they don't fit their own image of what a third-line player in the NHL should be?
An Olympic team does not need to be built with the same thought process that is used to build an NHL squad.
For one, the the International competition and the NHL are not the same brand of hockey. The game is officiated differently, it's played differently, and it doesn't even take place on the same ice surface.
The supply is there. The talent is there to pick from. And they're not held back by salary cap constraints.
Sometimes the right players really are the best players.