Before jumping I wanted to take a quick moment to thank JJ, Kyle, Graham and the rest of the WIIM crew for giving me the opportunity to join the writing staff of the best dang hockey site on the Internet. You will not regret this decision...probably.
Throughout the past season few things raised the ire of Red Wings fans, and apparently some Red Wings players as well, as the constantly changing and seemingly rudderless forward lines. At times it was as if Blashill had somehow stole Babcock's line blender (don't worry Leaf fans, he has plenty of them) and cranked it up to 11 trying to squeeze out any offense he could. Wings fans spent countless hours discussing which players should be playing where and why but maybe we should have been discussing the approach used to build the lines in the first place. During the quarter century long success that the Wings have enjoyed they have had two coaches with two fairly different approaches to line development guide them to Stanley Cup victory. Both emphasized two-way play out of their forwards and expected their best players to set the example. The differences, and thus the discussion, lay in the definition of the roles within each system.
Babcock took what I call and ocean waves approach in that he wanted the lines to look and play as similar as possible so that he could roll four lines that all fit into the system and would just wear the opponent down shift after shift in almost machine like proficiency. Each player has a specific role they fulfill on their line and within the roster as a whole. Things like Top 6, Bottom 6, piano mover, scorer, defensive forward, special teams' specialist, etc. were common terminology used by fans and players alike to describe their role. Specific assignments allowed each player to focus on the skills required to succeed in that assignment and thus made it easier to master those skills and excel. On the downside, it had a tendency to pigeonhole players and made it difficult for them to evolve their play beyond that assigned role. The expected high level of skill mastery also had a tendency to make it tough for young players to find success early in their pro career and resulted in the overripening development policy that came to be associated with the Red Wings.
Bowman, on the other hand, took more of a breadth over depth approach by building and deploying the lines, not the players, around specific roles. Often you would find two lines designated as the primary scoring lines with one typically employing a structured, north/south "North American style" and the other more of a free flowing, east/west "European style". To compliment the primary scoring lines there would be an "energy line" intended to be a change of pace from the more skilled scoring lines to a hard hitting, agitating one that was used to grind opponents down and soften them up for the other lines (they also provided the secondary scoring as well). The other line usually was the wild card that could be built and deployed however he chose based on the needs for the game/series/season and the players he had available for it. If the Wings had a prospect they wanted to begin working into the NHL or a veteran with a specific skillset they wanted to have available to them, i.e. face punchers or power play specialists, this is typically where they would go. Scotty's approach left him more flexibility to evolve and adapt the team as he could mold the lines around the talent he had and allow him to progress young players up and into the lineup without them being a completely finished product. On the downside, it relied a lot on having highly skilled and diverse forwards throughout the lineup which meant lots of time, money and resources spent to find and/or develop them.
Both approaches obviously work since both coaches have been successful for a long time with them. So the question now becomes which approach is the better one? Well, in reality the short answer is they are both proven Cup winning models. The slightly longer answer is whichever one best fits the team. In terms of Blashill and the Wings going forward, both can lead them to success but I personally would prefer to see a return to something closer to Scotty's approach. The beauty of Scotty's approach is that it gave the players room for their creativity and skill to come through while still playing within a somewhat rigid defensive system. If a coach decided they were going to try and shut down the speed and skill of the Russian 5, then the power and push of Yzerman and Shanahan would often beat them. Somehow manage to be skilled and strong enough to slow both of them down, well now you had to deal with the speed/strength/tenacity of the Grind Line. Figure out a way to somehow slow all three, well you are probably the Colorado Avalanche and your goalie will fail you trying to show off. The current Wings have the diverse blend of talent needed and I think this approach would allow them to use it more effectively and consistently. But that's just, like, my opinion man. What's yours?