Who Are Those Guys Scoring Goals? // Hockey But Dumber №3

What forwards do, and all the ways they’re divided up.

Winning any team sport (well, most team sports) requires a combination of two things — scoring and stopping the opponent from scoring. Hockey is no different. On every hockey team, there are players whose main job is to play offense, and players whose main job is to play defense. We’ll look at the offensive players — called “forwards” — first.

Lines

On a typical hockey team, there are 12 forwards. But, if you’ve watched a game, you can obviously tell that not all of them are on the ice at the same time. It would be way too crowded, and no one would be able to skate anywhere without knocking another player over. Plus, hockey is an extremely tiring sport — imagine sprinting, but on ice and covered in who knows how much weight in pads. It would be madness to expect players to last an entire hour doing that.

The solution? Splitting up the forwards into four “lines” of three players each. This allows them to switch out every minute (or less). One line comes off the ice to fuel up on the bench; another line hops on to keep the game going.

Forward Positions

Within every line, each player has a different role: left wing, center, or right wing. It can often be difficult to tell what position anyone plays, because they all move around so much. But here’s a very rudimentary breakdown:

Center

Following the pattern of self-explanatory names from the previous article, a center plays down the middle of the ice. (At least, most of the time.) As such, the center is often the carrier and distributor of the puck when transitioning from the neutral to the offensive zone.

Once the team is set up in the offensive zone, the center often stays in line with the goal (as pictured above). This ensures that, if a winger can find an opening to pass to the middle, the center will be able to launch a quick, straight shot at the net.

Left and Right Wings

With the center in the center of the ice, the left and right wings take up the sides of the ice (I’m sure you can guess which is which by now). Where the center usually has notably good skating ability, it’s the wings’ fast, accurate shots that typically stand out.

There’s some strategy to who plays which side. Players who are right shots (that is, they hold their sticks on the right side of their bodies, with the right hand below the left) tend to be left wings. Why? Because it gives them a better angle to shoot or pass. In the diagram below, you can see that the right-shot player is turned toward their teammates and the goal; the left-shot player is turned away.

A left-shot left wing’s angles (left) vs. a right-shot left wing’s angles (right).

The same principle applies to right wings; they’re usually left shots.

Special Cases

Sometimes, a player is able to play more than one (or all) of the forward positions. Take, for example, Claude Giroux (former captain of the Philadelphia Flyers). He’s a right shot, which means he can play left wing. However, he can also function as a center. These kinds of players aren’t common, but their versatility allows for more flexibility in constructing a team’s lineup.

In the grand scheme of things, knowing who’s a right wing, left wing, or center isn’t super important— it only really comes up occasionally on broadcasts. But if you’d like to know for sure what position any NHLer plays, check out Daily Faceoff’s “line combinations” feature. It’ll show you not only each player’s position, but also who his linemates are.

Top Six vs. Bottom Six

Since there are twelve forwards in total, they can also be divided into two halves — the top six and bottom six.

Top Six

The top six consists of the first and second lines of forwards. There’s a reason why they’re on the first and second lines — they’re the “best” players on the team in terms of scoring goals. They’re the superstars, the elite players, and often the ones who are the most aggressive and do the most on offense.

Connor McDavid, first-line center and captain of the Edmonton Oilers. “Connor McDavid” by nunymare is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Bottom Six

Bottom six players (on the third and fourth lines) aren’t the ones in the conversation of the “best” forwards in the league. But they’re the “grit” guys, providing energy and attitude. They’re typically the ones who will fight for their team (literally). They also drain time off the clock and help back up the defense. Bottom-six players probably aren’t the names you would recognize, even if you did follow hockey pretty closely, but they’re important to the success of any team all the same.

Patrick Maroon, fourth-line left wing and three-time Stanley Cup winner with the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Remember, forwards are only one part of a well-rounded hockey team. There’s another important piece: the players who prevent the opponent from scoring. Next time, we’ll take a look at defensemen and goaltenders — the guys that stop goals.

Questions? Most of them will be answered later in the series, but feel free to leave them in the comments for now.

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Elisa Chen

Elisa Chen

Diehard Flyers fan and creator of Hockey But Dumber — a series designed to get new hockey fans acquainted with the game.