Hockey linguistics: Roster basics

by Dan Morse

“This guy’s got top-6 potential.”

“He’s a serviceable bottom-pair defenseman.”

“Not the flashiest player, he’s more of a grinder.”

If you’ve perused (or plan to peruse) some mock expansion drafts ahead of the real deal on July 21st, you’ve come across some statements like these. If you’re new to hockey, or you’ve been to plenty of WHL games in the Seattle area (there’s a lot of them!) but don’t dig too deep into the finer details of roster-building, you may not quite understand some of these terms.

If you are surprised when I tell you that a top-6 forward does not mean one of the six best forwards in the NHL, then this primer is for you. If you are well-versed in hockey terminology, just skip to the end for seven minutes of mic’d up Wes McCauley.

Let’s start off by going through some terms that come up often when discussing player talent, or potential talent.

PLAYER TALENT

For this section, we’ll use the Tampa Bay Lightning as an example. The graphic below show the line combinations for the Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final and comes courtesy of the Daily Faceoff.

The left-hand side shows the four forward lines, while the right-hand side shows the three defensive pairings. Tampa Bay’s first line right now consists of Brayden Point at center with Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov on the wings. The defensive pairings will not always line up with the same forward lines throughout a game, so don’t go expecting Victor Hedman and Jan Ruuta to always play with the top line for Tampa Bay.

Top-6 forward

A top-6 forward is, as indicated above, a forward that plays on one of the top two lines for their team. The first two lines are generally considered to be the scoring lines in the NHL. They generate the most offense and feature the most skilled players on the team. Of the 62 goals scored by Tampa Bay forwards this playoffs, 41 of them (~66%) have been scored by the top two lines, or the top six forwards. When you see a player given the “top-6 potential” label, it means he’s got potential to play a lot of minutes and be a key piece of a team’s offense.

Bottom-6 forward

This one is pretty self-explanatory. A bottom-6 forward plays on one of the bottom two lines. Generally speaking, they don’t provide as much offense as the top-6. And yes, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to fill your roster with top-6 forwards if you could, but there simply aren’t that many of them to go around.

The bottom-6 forwards usually include players that are good defensively and on the penalty kill. The players with the most penalty killing time on ice this playoffs (excluding the currently injured Alex Killorn), per Evolving Hockey, are:

  • Anthony Cirelli
  • Blake Coleman
  • Barclay Goodrow
  • Yanni Gourde

That’s one top-6 forward and three bottom-6 forwards. This isn’t a rule or a requirement at all, but in general these players provide some consistent defensive value for their team.

Top-4 defenseman/bottom pair defenseman

These are defined in the same way as the forward lines, but the skillsets separating them are less defined. With defensemen, it’s more about overall talent level. Your top-4 defensemen are going to get more ice time each night than your bottom pair. Going back to the Lightning example above, Victor Hedman played just over 25 minutes per game this season, while David Savard averaged 20:26.

PLAYER STYLES

Now that we’ve covered perceived player skill-level, let’s rapid-fire cover some common player archetypes.

Sniper

A player that excels at scoring goals.

Ex: Alex Ovechkin, Auston Matthews

Playmaker

One who excels at setting up teammates with high-danger chances, usually has high assist totals.

Ex: Connor McDavid, Patrick Kane

Two-way forward

A forward that plays excellent defense in addition to good offense.

Ex: Mark Stone, Patrice Bergeron

Grinder

A forward that is willing to get into the tough spaces and take a beating to keep possession of the puck. Also willing to dish out the beating to get control of the puck as well. You’ll see these guys more often in a team’s bottom-6.

Ex: Casey Cizikas, Blake Coleman

Power forward

The size and physicality of a grinder with the skill of a sniper or playmaker.

Ex: Gabriel Landeskog, Tom Wilson

Stay-at-home defenseman

A defenseman who doesn’t add much in the offensive zone but plays fantastic defense.

Ex: Jacob Slavin, Jared Spurgeon

You made it! You’re now prepared to read and react to every mock draft and analysis of the Kraken’s initial roster. Celebrate with a compilation of the NHL’s most personable referee, Wes McCauley:

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