How do hockey players know when to change?

A unique aspect of hockey is that players are allowed to shift on and off while the play is still happening. Most other team sports – soccer, football, baseball, rugby – require a stoppage of play before a player is allowed to be substituted for another. But hockey allows players to change in the flow of the game and to change on and off as a strategic part of the game.

How do hockey players know when to change? Hockey players know when to change based on a number of factors including the length of their shift, changing as a unit with your line mates, strategic matchups against your opponent, and only changing when it will not cause a scoring chance against.

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Let’s look a little more closely at each of these aspects of when a player determines he will come off the ice. 

Players change off after about 30-45 seconds

An average shift in the NHL takes about 45 seconds. If you want to look at this more closely, I did a full post on shift length.

For our discussion here, the most important thing to know is that after 45 second a players performance will start to diminish significantly if they do not get off the ice. Hockey is a high energy, high stamina sport and you can only keep up the intensity for so long before you need to rest. It is no secret, these guys can keep it up for about 45 seconds to one minute.

They have played this game for so long, and have taken countless numbers of shifts that they intuitively know when they are approaching the end of their shift. If your not tired after 45 seconds, you really have not been skating hard enough (check this out to see the huge amount of calories burned by an NHL player during the game).

A player will often stay out on the power play for one minute or longer as there is not as much skating required on the offensive side of the power play, as it is more about puck control and passing. However, players on the penalty kill will try to switch every 30 seconds because they will be chasing the puck and, therefore, will get tired quickly.

So, all this is to say that a player will have a good intuitive sense of when they need to change due to their physical stamina and the quick depletion of it after 30-45 seconds.  

Players change off when their line mates change

Players will also shift when their linemates shift off. The forwards will play in a group of three – left wing, center, and right wing. The defence will play in a group of two – left defensemen and right defensemen. 

It is the most common to shift off as a whole forward line or defence pairing. The coaches have put those players together for a reason, and different lines actually have different functions. 

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For instance, the four forward lines can be categorized as: Top Scoring line, second scoring line, shutdown line, and checking/energy line. The top two lines are responsible for getting goals, the third line is tasked with stopping the other team’s top line, and the fourth line is responsible for establishing a hard forecheck and momentum for the other lines. 

So when your line mates shift off you shift off with them. The coaches have put these lines together for a reason, so they will come on and off the ice together as they are permitted by the course of play. 

Players change off and on as part of the strategy of the game

Players also shift on and off as part of the strategy of matching up against the opponents of the other team. 

For instance, a forward group and defensive pairing who have an offensive mindset may find themselves out there against the other team’s top offensive unit. This could be called a bad matchup because the other team’s offensive group could just be better than yours. 

Instead of wasting time using your best offensive group to defend against the other team’s best offensive group, the players will shift off the ice and the shutdown line responsible for defensive play will come on. 

You will most often see this with the team’s top defensive pairing. They will shift on as quickly as safely possible to play against the other team’s top forward line. This is a very intentional strategy to try and limit the other team’s top offensive players. 

Players change off only when it is safe too

I have mentioned a couple of times that a player will shift on when it is safe to do so. 

What I mean by safe is that by going to the bench to get a substitute for yourself that you do not cause a scoring chance for the other team. 

Players will only change when they know that it will not put their own team at a disadvantage.  This usually means that the puck is in the other team’s end as far away from your goaltender as possible. 

This is why you will see – dozens of times each game – players skating the puck to the red line and simply shooting the puck in and going for a line change. They have to get over the red line to avoid icing the puck (don’t quite understand icing rule check out my write up), and once they get over the red line they shoot it deep into their opponents end. 

Getting the puck deep into the opponents end gives the opportunity for both the forward and defensemen to change without the other team being able to move the puck up the ice before a fresh set of players is on the ice. 

It is common to keep one guy on the ice, who will wait until the other players have safely changed before he does. Once the other players have shifted off he will make his way over to the bench to substitute. 

Players do not always change as a line. The way a shift is going may permit only one or two players to change at a time. For instance, a line may get trapped in their own zone and when the puck comes out past the blue line it will give enough time for one or two players to change safely but not the whole line – and, usually, not the defensemen. 

Players will always wait until it is safe before they change off.

Players change off only when it is safe to change off

Coaches will always tell you one thing about line changes: Poor line changes lead to goals against.

NHL players are too good for your team to have poor line changes and not get burned. If you are making poor line changes your team will give up scoring chances, which leads to goals against.

I have added a couple of examples below that show the Toronto Maple Leafs having a poor line change that leads to goals against. 

Most games you will never see this, but it does happen at a regular enough basis that I wouldn’t call a poor line change rare. 

Toronto and Boston

In the first clip you will see that the whole team went to the bench without one player either pursuing the puck down low or staying back to prevent against the breakaway pass.

Toronto and Tampa Bay

When you look at the replay of the goal you will see that all the Toronto players except for one go for a change while the puck is in their zone, and allow Tampa to have a 3-on-1. As the announcer said, ‘It is a horrible change’.

Changing lines at recreational levels

Changing lines at lower levels of hockey involve many of the same aspects as the NHL, but there are some differences 

  • Buzzer – at the beginning stages of hockey many of the shifts are timed. A shift will last two minutes and the buzzer will go signalling all the players to be shifted off the ice. 
  • Coaches – coaches will be much more active at calling players off. There is definitely a tendency for kids to stay on the ice too long. Coaches are more active in seeing that everyone is getting equal playing time. In higher level hockey players do not get equal playing time – the better players play more. 
  • Pick-up or adult hockey – this is the type of hockey that I play. Sometimes the games are in leagues other times it is just friends playing together. Nobody policies these games as to shift length and mostly you are on the trust system to take an appropriate shift length – about 1 minute. However, there seems like there is always one guy who likes to take long, long shifts. Nobody likes this guy, so do not be that guy. Go on the ice and work hard for your minute and then come off. When you take too long of shifts you are essentially stealing playing time from others. 

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Welcome to Hockey Answered: a resource for anyone curious to learn & understand more about the great game of hockey.

I am a lifelong fan who grew up in a major market (Calgary), and I have played, coached, and watched a lot of hockey!

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