Top Lines Taking the League by Storm

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 2:51 am by Dimitri Filipovic

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I think it’s safe to say that most hockey fans are generally aware of the most obviously dynamic top line combinations out there. Whether its Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn in Dallas, or Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek in Philadelphia, The Triplets in Tampa Bay or even The Not Your Average Joes in San Jose, there are some outright dominant units out there these days. If you’re cheering for the team they’re going up against, you’re petrified every time they hit the ice. If you’re an unbiased observer, you’re probably tuning in just to get a head start on that night’s highlight packages.

The aforementioned guys have been established for a while now, and have rightfully so earned their place amongst the league’s elite. But they’re also not the only ones putting in work this season. Through the first few weeks of the campaign we’ve seen a handful of newly put together, highly promising lines take the league by storm. In no particular order:

1. Mike Hoffman – Kyle Turris – Mark Stone

It’s not exactly surprising for those that have been paying attention to the NHL over the past year or so that these three have been as productive as they have, but it still feels like they’re not as heralded as they should be. If you’ll recall Stone and Turris levelled up and carried the Senators into the playoffs in 2014-15, but its been the addition of Hoffman – who happened to nearly score 30 goals himself – to the mix that has put them over the top this season. 

Together they have 23 points combined, which has each of them inside the top 15 of both total points and rate of production. When the three of them are on the ice together, the Senators account for ~53% of all shot attempts and ~73% of all goals scored at 5v5. There’s a legitimate argument to be made that they’ve been the most effective 3-man unit in the NHL this side of Benn and Seguin (and Top Line Right Winger Du Jour for the Stars) through the first couple of weeks of the season. 

The catch: they’ll likely need to continue to this pace, because the drop-off between them and the rest of the team is awfully precipitous. Despite their excellence the Senators as a team currently sit 25th in Score-Adjusted Corsi at 46.9%. The good news is that between those three and Erik Karlsson none of them are over 26 years old, which means that they should be up to the task of shouldering the bulk of the load moving forward.

2. Jonathan Huberdeau – Sasha Barkov – Jaromir Jagr

Based on his play ever since being dealt to the Panthers in the middle of last season, I’d say Jaromir Jagr didn’t get the memo about Florida being the place where people generally go to retire. The dynamic of a soon-to-be 44 year old Jagr playing alongside two players that have 42 years of age between them is a fascinating one, as there appears to be a symbiotic relationship between his experience and guile and the youthful spring in their step. 

Generally I’d be wary of putting too much stock into the measly handful of games of data we have to work with this early on, but not in this instance. If only because of the wildly successful cameo we saw from this trio towards the end of 2014-15. We now have over 300 minutes of 5v5 shared ice time spanning 25 games since Jagr came to the Panthers (note: Huberdeau’s splits here are nearly identical).

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Taking it a step further, Jagr leads the league in the rate at which he’s producing 5v5 points this season. He surely won’t be able to sustain that pace as the year goes along, but given the lofty heights he and his linemates have reached early on even a moderate regression will still leave them sitting pretty. 

Particularly if they continue being the possession monsters they’ve shown they’re capable of being since they were united. The hockey community has collectively been waiting for the Panthers to put it all together and finally realize their immense potential for a few years now seemingly. With the Atlantic division fairly open and a legitimate top line swinging things in their favour nearly every time they hit the ice this may finally be the year we see it happen.

3. Max Pacioretty – Tomas Plekanec – Brendan Gallagher

The question mark for the Montreal Canadiens coming in wasn’t the talent they had on their roster, but rather whether their coach would be able to optimize what he was given to work with. The early returns are obviously quite promising, as Montreal’s 6-0 record and +13 goal differential are both the best in the league. But unlike the success they enjoyed last season, they haven’t necessarily been playing with fire by leaning on their goaltender to do the heavy lifting.

The Canadiens currently hold the 3rd best Score-Adjusted possession percentage in the league, and have surrendered the 4th fewest shot attempts against. That’s a far cry from the 22nd and 23rd rankings they had in those categories last season respectively.

It seems like a lot of that success can be attributed to Michel Therrien’s decision to finally give in to the fans’ pleas for Max Pacioretty to be given a centre more relatable in talent. It seems crazy to think about, but since Pacioretty broke out as the prolific scorer that he’s now known to be his most common linemate by a landslide has been David Desharnais.

Desharnais’ story as an undrafted free agent is inspiring and his staying power in the league has been commendable, but the decision to shackle him to the team’s best player was always a curious one. From 2011-15 Pacioretty spent roughly 74% of his 5v5 minutes with Desharnais, while only 13% of them next to the team’s best pivot in Tomas Plekanec.

The partnership was the perfect microcosm for the Canadiens as a whole: it was tough to argue with the end results, but you couldn’t help but feel like all of the juice wasn’t quite being squeezed out of the orange.

The early returns have been promising for the new top line this season. All 3 of them are flirting with toting an absurd 65% score-adjusted possession rate, and they’ve combined for 10 of the team’s 20 total goals scored this season. Meanwhile, it’s worth pointing out that the 3rd line – composed of the aforementioned Desharnais, along with Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann – has more than held its own.

Things appear to be coming together rather nicely in the Montreal, and it’s tough not to take them more seriously as a legitimate contender as a result.

Honourable Mention: Tobias Rieder – Martin Hanzal – Anthony Duclair

Prior to the season the Arizona Coyotes seemed like a very logical choice for the team that had the inside track on the Auston Matthews sweepstakes. They still very well might; unless you think Mike Smith is headed for an all-time season by a goalie, Arizona’s 45.4% Score-Adjusted Fenwick at 5v5 (5th worst in the league, behind only the two Alberta teams, Detroit, and Colorado) will likely cave in on them in a matter of time. Their blueline is suspect at best beyond Ekman-Larsson and the back-half of forward group is rather sloppily put together.

That’s not to say that it’s all bad for Arizona, though, because they’ve been surprisingly fun to watch this year at the very least. While Max Domi has been receiving a large chunk of the attention – and justifiably so, as he’s landed the first punch in the Connor McDavid vs. the rest of the NHL rookie class fight for the Calder – the second line has been rather sneakily putting in work themselves. And that may be an understatement, when considering that all 3 of the members of the line are currently sitting in the top 10 amongst NHL point producers.

The issue that arises from dealing with goal-based stats this early in a season is that fluctuations in shooting percentage can cloud our perception of what’s really going on. A great example of this is Anthony Duclair’s underlying stat line, which shows that at 5v5 he has:

  • Been on the ice for 7 goals for and 0 against 
  • Leads the league in goals/60

That’s obviously great, because it means that the Coyotes have been thriving with him on the ice through the first 5 games of the season. We can’t take that away from him, it’s already in the bank. But it also has absolutely no predictive value moving forward. At this point we know better than to think that his 121.7 PDO (constituted of a 100.0 on-ice save % and 21.7 on-ice shooting %, which both Rieder and Hanzal have also similarly enjoyed) is something that will continue. Same goes for his personal 50% conversion rate on his shots on goal. Regardless of how well you think they’ve been playing, those sorts of rates are all due for a steep decline. 

Luckily for Duclair and the ‘Yotes while the percentages have been awfully fortuitous to them early on it’s not exactly a total mirage, either. Digging a little bit deeper they appear to be forcing some of that luck themselves with their play. 

Since the trio was put together early in the season, they’ve been controlling just north of 55% of all shot attempts while they’ve been on the ice. Continuing to tilt the ice and control the territorial battle will help mitigate the percentages. So will their ability to generate scoring chances, which has been strikingly apparently thus far. According to War on Ice the team has been generating 47.65 scoring chances/60 with Duclair on the ice, which is second to only Logan Couture’s 49.38. Not only that, but his raw scoring chance +/- is actually the best in the entire league amongst forwards. Rieder – who is currently 15th in the league in individual shot generation, proving that last year was no fluke – and Hanzal themselves aren’t too far behind in this regard, either. Both of those trends are good signs.

It’s somewhat ironic that during a time in which the Edmonton Oilers have been stockpiling big name, flashy forward talent they managed to let someone as subtly good at hockey as Rieder is slip through their fingers. He’d be a perfect supplementary winger for them at this point (though I suspect the Coyotes have already said no take-backs!).

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