What is the last change in hockey?

In hockey, the changing of lines is part of the overall strategy of trying to win a hockey game. When you watch hockey you will notice that there is one team that will change before the other in a consistent order.

During a stoppage in play, the “last change” in hockey is given to the home team to be able to send on their players after the away team puts their players on the ice. This allows the coach of the home team to strategize by being able to send specific players to match up against the other team’s players — either in a defensive posture or to create offence.

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How does the last change work?

NHL teams will change players on the ice with players on the bench at two times of the game:

  1. After a stoppage of play
  2. While the play is still happening

When teams change players after a stoppage of play, the away team will make the first change.

According to the NHL rulebook, it states:

82.1 Line Change – Following the stoppage of play, the visiting team shall promptly place a line-up on the ice ready for play and no substitution shall be made from that time until play has been resumed. The home team may then make any desired substitution, except in cases following an icing, which does not result in the delay of the game

When the play is stopped, the linesman will go to the center of the ice and raise his arm and face towards the away team. This is the signal to the away team that they now have the opportunity to change the players on the ice with the players on the bench. The linesman will give the team five seconds to change.  As you watch hockey you will know this happens quite fluidly and is not a robotic process.

However, after the linesman sees the away team has changed he will lower his arm and now position himself towards the home team to allow them to change players. As with the away team, the home team also has five seconds to change their players.  Since the home team is the second team to change players, this is called the last change as no other changes are allowed after this.

If there is a delay by either team in changing their players, the linesman is permitted to not allow players to change and force players to stay on the ice who have not changed (although, this rarely, rarely, probably never happens). After the player changes have been made, no changes are allowed until after the faceoff and the puck is in play, with the one exception being if a penalty happens to be called prior to the faceoff.  


Why is the last change important?

The last change is part of the home-ice advantage for the home team, because it allows the coach to match his players and lines up against the other teams.

Similar to baseball, where the manager will want to bring in a specific pitcher against a specific batter, the hockey coach will want to make sure he matches up certain lines and defence pairings against specific lines and players from the other team.

If the away team puts out their top scoring line, the home coach will likely use his last change to match up his top defensive forward line and his top defensemen on the ice.

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In this photo, Calgary has put on their top defensive unit including Matthew Tkachuk and Michael Backlund, who is taking the faceoff, in the defensive zone against Colorado’s top offensive player Nathan MacKinnon.

In this example, it becomes even more important when the faceoff at the start of the play is in the defensive zone. When the other team’s best offensive players are starting in your defensive zone, the coach will want to make sure his best defensive players or best faceoff man (to win the faceoff and gain possession of the puck) is on the ice to stop any potential scoring chances.

On each team, there are usually players deemed the “shutdown forward” or “shutdown defensemen”. These are the players that the coach relies on most to play against the top offensive players from the opposing team.  They are constantly trying to match up these players on the fly or use the last change to make sure they are matched correctly.


Using the last change to protect players

Often, the coach will use the last change to protect ‘weaker’ or inexperienced players. Not all players’ skill level and talent is equal and other teams will know who these players are. To protect these players from getting exposed, the coach will try to put them in positions where they will not get exposed.

For instance, if a rookie defensemen is placed into the lineup, the coach will want to make sure that they are not on the ice at the same time as Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin or Connor McDavid. These superstar players are so good and they know who they are playing against on the ice; if they see a weaker opponent is on the ice, they will use it to their advantage and exploit the weakness.


How much does the last change matter to who wins or loses?

Well, the home team in the NHL wins approximately 55% of the time.  So there is a slight advantage to playing at home, but probably not as big as one would assume.

How much does the last change have to do with this? This variable within the game is immeasurable from a data standpoint, however from experience and witnessing how the games play out, it is hard to argue against there being no effect.

The clearest way of seeing the effect is when a great offensive player on the team is shutdown and allowed little to no opportunity to score. For the most part offensive players have worst scoring totals on the road then when they play at home. One of the reasons for this is that they simply have to play against the other teams top defensive players on the road. The match up of getting your defensive players on against the other team’s best offensive players is important.

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