How Do Hockey Players Know When To Change Lines?

by Simon | Updated On: February 8th, 2020
line change

We may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page.

When you watch a hockey game, you’ll notice that players seem to follow a “code” when they change lines. They all change after a similar amount of time, and only during certain moments in play. But how do they know when to change lines? Why do they only change at particular times? And what constitutes a “bad” line change? We’ll investigate everything you need to know about line changes here in this helpful guide.

In hockey, players can change lines during stoppages in play or “on the fly” – during game action. In the NHL, today’s players take approximately 45 second shifts to maximize their effort in short periods of time. Recreational players usually take 1 to 2 minute shifts. When changing on the fly, players should change when the puck is in the opponent’s defensive zone. It is considered a bad change to change lines while on the backcheck or in your own defensive zone (if you’re not in control of the puck).

How Long Should a Shift Be?

The length of a shift – the amount of time a player spends on the ice before changing lines – varies depending on the level of hockey being played.

In professional leagues like the NHL, players expend their full energy while they’re on the ice. This means that the best strategy for them is to take short shifts.

Short shifts allow players to give it their all for a brief stretch of time. They then return to the bench to swap for a rested player. That’s why line-changes are so quick.

NHLers take shifts that average around 40-45 seconds. As the game gets into its later stages, this number can decrease to around 25-30 seconds.

Players are very familiar with the feel of how long they’ve been on the ice, plus they get tired.

For recreational players, shifts of around 1 to 2 minutes are standard.

Rec players are, of course, trying their hardest, but their effort level will likely be lower than that of professional hockey. This can allow for shifts to run longer than 45 seconds.

If players are playing on lines (on forward) or pairs (on defense), they should try to change at a similar time with their line/pair.

It is not uncommon to see defensemen take slightly longer shifts than forwards. Forwards are required to work harder because their position involves more skating.

It is also more difficult for defensemen to find the proper moment to change lines, as they must wait for the puck to be safely in the opponent’s zone, or for a stoppage in play, to change.

Be careful not to take shifts that are too long. Pay attention to the shift lengths of your linemates and teammates so as not to get a reputation as a selfish player.

Shifts should generally not exceed two minutes, unless you are trapped in your defensive zone.

It is also more than okay to take short shifts. For example, you may tire out faster than other players.

Your teammates will never complain about extra ice time if you take short shifts.

Boyd Gordon tries to beat the Thrashers, catching them in a line change.

When to Change Lines?

Players are mindful to keep their shifts within a 45 second range (for the NHL) and under 2 minutes (for recreational hockey). But line changes should only happen during certain moments of play.

The simplest line change is after a whistle.

When play is stopped or during an intermission, players can freely change lines.

Changing on the fly is more complicated because you don’t want to make a bad line change. A bad line change would give your opponent an advantage or scoring chance while you are heading to the bench.

How To Avoid Bad Line Changes

To avoid bad line changes, players only change when the puck is in certain zones.

Players do not change lines when they are in their team’s defensive zone. If they were to do so, they would abandon the coverage of their opponent who is a threat to score on their net.

Bruins forward Brad Marchand made a notable example of this type of bad line change in Game 7 of the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Finals. It cost his team a goal in their Finals loss to the Blues.

Players also don’t change lines when the play is transitioning from the offensive zone to the defensive zone. A rush down the ice toward your net requires you to “backcheck” from the opponent’s zone and cover the players who are heading to your net to score.

Safe line changes can occur when the puck is in your opponent’s defensive zone. Sometimes players will dump the puck into the offensive zone to guarantee a safe line change.

Similarly, goalies can strategically freeze the puck in the defensive zone to get their tired teammates a line change.

A line change while the puck is in the neutral zone can be risky, especially for defensemen, but it can be accomplished if an exhausted player finds the right moment to change.

Defensemen primarily wait for the play to shift to the offensive zone before they change lines.

NHL: Bad Line Changes

Should You Jump Over the Boards to Change Lines?

If your main knowledge of hockey is from watching the NHL, you’ll often see players enter the ice by going over the bench rather than through its gate. Players coming off the ice usually return to the bench through the gate.

In recreational hockey, it is standard for players both entering and exiting the bench to go through the gate. The player exiting the bench should always precede the player entering it.

Defensemen go through the gate closest to their team’s net, while forwards go through the gate closest to the opponent’s net.

If the goalies change ends at the start of each period, the forwards and defensemen will also switch ends on the bench.

Changing lines becomes more difficult when your goalie is in the far net, because this makes your team’s bench further from your defensive zone.

Strategic line changes are a critical yet subtle part of hockey. Keeping your shifts within a reasonable range maximizes the effort you can make while on the ice. A line change will then allow refreshed skaters to take over for you. But you should avoid bad line changes, especially when the puck is in your defensive zone or when you should be backchecking. Changing lines when the puck is in the offensive zone or after a whistle are the safest times to swap yourself out.

Simon, the founder of Brave Stick Hockey, started playing hockey in 2003. He launched this website in 2018 to help new hockey players and fans learn more about the game and have more fun while learning.