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Ranking the NHL’s best lines

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Published by Greg Wyshynski on Espn.com.au

In ranking the best lines in the NHL, there’s also what we’ll call the Tampa Bay Lightning problem.

Last season, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos played with Vladislav Namestnikov, and things were pretty good. Then Vlad was traded, J.T. Miller joined the line, and things were not as good. This season, Kucherov has played in several different combinations, including a reunion with his Triplets linemates of Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, and that hasn’t clicked yet. Meanwhile, the Bolts’ most effective line of the past two seasons — Brayden Point, Palat and Johnson — has hardly seen any time together in 2018-19.

This ranking looks at the effectiveness of the top current line combinations in the NHL. These lines have to had played with each other in 2018-19 (with one exception), but when applicable we take into account their play together in 2017-18. (Hence, teams with a longer work history were rated higher.) Among the factors in the ranking are goal scoring, defense, possession, zone starts and something a little less quantifiable: How good we feel they’ll be going forward, and whether they’ll remain together.

Here are the top 20 lines in the NHL today, even if some of them will inevitably be broken up by the time you read this:


20. New York Islanders:

Josh Bailey-Brock Nelson-Anders Lee

Rather than sitting around in their pajamas, holding glasses of Chardonnay and reminiscing about what once was with John Tavares, this Islanders trio has the makings of a strong top line. They’ve scored five goals in eight games and have yet to give up one. Yes, they’re very much on the minus side of possession, but they’re also only starting in the offensive zone 43.6 percent of the time. The presence of Lee alone (26 even-strength goals in his past 92 games) makes this a group worth watching. So does the fact that Lee and Nelson are in contract years.

19. Montreal Canadiens:

Brendan Gallagher-Phillip Danault-Tomas Tatar

The Max Domi line has generated more fireworks (and has given up just one goal in eight games), but if we had to wager which Montreal group was going to endure, it would be this trio. They’ve generated five goals in 10 games, giving up two, and they’re possession monsters thus far, with a 63.4 Corsi for percentage, which is like Patrice Bergeron territory. Plus, we’re here for the redemption of Tomas Tatar.

18. Chicago Blackhawks:

Alex DeBrincat-Jonathan Toews-Dominik Kahun

We’re not sure how long this line will last, considering that Joel Quenneville likes to scramble his lines every few weeks like he’s making an omelet. But through 12 games, this Toews-led group has scored nine goals and is a plus-33 in Corsi differential. DeBrincat (12) and Toews (11) have been fabulous at even strength so far, and 23-year-old German rookie Kahun is holding his own.

17. San Jose Sharks:

Tomas Hertl-Logan Couture-Timo Meier

A promising group, especially with the emergence of Meier and their early returns on possession (55.1 Corsi for percentage in 13 games over two seasons). Yet they have a minus-one goal differential, putting them slightly behind other debuting lines, despite generating seven goals in nine games together.

16. Calgary Flames:

Johnny Gaudreau-Sean Monahan-Elias Lindholm

Lindholm is expected to add some defensive prowess to the Flames’ top line, which features one of the most dynamic duos in the NHL. They’ve generated eight goals in 11 games together, which is good. They’ve given up nine and are in the negative side of possession, which is bad. Still, a promising group for coach Bill Peters — although one wonders, if they struggle, how much pressure will be on him to add the expensive James Neal to Monahan and Gaudreau.

15. Toronto Maple Leafs:

Patrick Marleau-Auston Matthews-Kasperi Kapanen

One of two Leafs lines on this list, and a good one, having generated nine goals in 10 games together. But we have to give the group a couple of demerits here because it’ll miss Matthews for a month to injury, and there’s no telling what it’ll look like if and when William Nylander returns from his contract stalemate. There’s a better chance at the moment that Toronto’s other line will remain intact.

14. Toronto Maple Leafs:

Zach Hyman-John Tavares-Mitch Marner

The other Leafs line. They’ve generated nine goals in 11 games for a stellar goals-for percentage of 69.2. Marner has 11 points at even strength, and Tavares has 10. They’re ranked above the Matthews line because we expect they’ll remain together longer, and because Tavares has been a Leaf for only 11 games, even if it feels like 11 years. Definitely a group that could be higher on this list by year’s end.

13. Carolina Hurricanes:

Teuvo Teravainen-Sebastian Aho-Micheal Ferland

It’s early, but, whoa baby, are the results promising: 10 goals scored, only two given up in 11 games, with a goals for percentage of 83.3. (In other words, the percentage of goals scored when they’re on the ice vs. opponents’.) Aho has 13 even-strength points thus far, in the midst of a breakout campaign with these linemates, One of whom, Ferland, seemed like a throw-in for the Dougie Hamilton trade. A line that gives the Hurricanes a reason to celebrate. And the more Hurricanes celebrations, the better it is for hockey.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins:

Carl Hagelin-Evgeni Malkin-Phil Kessel

Malkin has been incredible thus far in 2018-19, with 18 points in nine games, while Kessel has seven goals and seven helpers in that span. Their line with Hagelin, who still has those wheels, has a 57.9 goals for percentage during this season and last. But the trio lands a bit farther down on this list because Malkin and Hagelin have, frankly, better numbers playing with Patric Hornqvist (plus-8 goal differential, 64.3 goals-for percentage) than Kessel.

11. Florida Panthers:

Nick Bjugstad-Aleksander Barkov-Evgenii Dadonov

As the Panthers struggle to find a mix that works, this line should be their constant. In 45 games together dating back to 2017, they’ve generated 34 goals and a plus-11 goal differential. Thanks in part to Barkov’s Selke Trophy-worthy defense, they’ve also dominated possession in that stretch, despite starting just 44 percent of the time in the offensive end.

10. Columbus Blue Jackets:

Artemi Panarin-Pierre-Luc Dubois-Cam Atkinson

In theory, you could add Artemi Panarin to a line with a beer league player and a professional hockey writer and it would generate impressive offensive numbers. But in Columbus, he’s had much better quality in Atkinson (43 even-strength points in 75 games) and Dubois, who has become the offensive pivot that the Jackets prayed he’d become on his draft day. Oh, and of course, Panarin, who has 73 even-strength points in his past 91 games and has helped this line to a plus-11 goal differential with 25 goals together in 53 games. Giddy-up.

9. Washington Capitals:

Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson

[Sirens blaring] Warning, warning: Tom Wilson appreciation alert! Wilson’s presence on the Capitals’ top line doesn’t just put opponents at risk. It also helps give Ovechkin and Kuznetsov their best possession numbers vs. other options on the wing. This unit has generated 15 goals in 60 regular-season games together, and was dominant in the Capitals’ postseason run to the Stanley Cup. Now, will they be reunited when Wilson’s done serving his latest suspension?

8. Philadelphia Flyers:

Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Travis Konecny

The line that helped revitalize Giroux’s career and prove that Couturier could be an elite two-way center. Konecny’s speed makes him the optimal partner for these two, and the results point to that: 36 goals scored at 5-on-5 in 68 games, with a plus-101 in Corsi differential. Not bad for a group that starts only 42.8 percent of the time in the offensive zone.

7. Winnipeg Jets:

Kyle Connor-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler

It hasn’t been the best start for this trio in 2018-19, which is one of the reasons why coach Paul Maurice hasn’t had them united recently. They only generated two goals at 5-on-5 in 11 games, ending up on the negative side of possession and goal differential (minus-3). But their overall numbers dating back to last season, when Connor was a rookie, warrant their inclusion here, as they scored 30 goals together and were slightly on the plus side of every other metric. Overall, a dominant group offensively that has had its defensive challenges. Hopefully we see them again soon.

6. New Jersey Devils:

Taylor Hall-Nico Hischier-Kyle Palmieri

Palmieri has eight goals in his first eight games, four of them at 5-on-5. Hall won the Hart Trophy last season thanks to his line’s prowess, and has 104 points overall in his past 84 games. It’s a line that plays a 200-foot game and is the undeniable engine for the Devils, with an incredible 71.5 goals for percentage at even strength during this season and last. They’re generated 27 goals together since 2017, giving up just 11. The early returns this season bump them up a few spots.

5. Dallas Stars:

Jamie Benn-Tyler Seguin-Alexander Radulov

Remember that scene in “Mad Max: Fury Road” when Max spits gasoline into the engine intake to make the War Rig go faster? In 2017, Benn and Seguin were that War Rig, a steady and effective duo. Radulov was the gasoline. The trio has generated 44 goals for a plus-20 differential in 83 games together dating back to last season, with a 64.7 goals for percentage. They create chances and possess the puck far more than their teammates. Witness them, shiny and chrome! (And keep them together, Jim Montgomery.)

4. Nashville Predators:

Filip Forsberg-Ryan Johansen-Viktor Arvidsson

The burgeoning stardom of Filip Forsberg, with 78 points in his past 78 games, gets plenty of love. But Arvidsson (11 points in 11 games this season) and Johansen (13 in 11) are potent offensive talents. This trio has a plus-23 goal differential in 72 games during last season and this one, including a stellar 67.7 goals for percentage at 5-on-5.

3. Vegas Golden Knights:

Reilly Smith-Jonathan Marchessault-William Karlsson

They were no fluke, despite Karlsson’s obscene 23.4 shooting percentage last season. They’re basically a Vegas shot machine. The Knights’ trio has a 60.7 Corsi for percentage and a 63.2 scoring chances for percentage this season. They don’t have the goal differential on their side yet (minus-1), but in their past 75 games together, they’re at a plus-23. And much like everything else with the Golden Knights, they’re just darn fun to watch.

2. Boston Bruins:

Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak

The Bruins’ top unit has a plus-14 goal differential at 5-on-5 during this season and last (62 games), with a Corsi for percentage of 58.8. Pastrnak has 54 even-strength goals and Marchand has 53 since 2016. Combined with Bergeron, an all-timer as a two-way center, and this is as dominating a line in both ends as you’ll find in the NHL. For the past few seasons, this is the gold standard for top lines. But there’s now three new players crammed onto that throne.

1. Colorado Avalanche:

Gabriel Landeskog-Nathan MacKinnon-Mikko Rantanen

At this point, it’s fair to say that the Avalanche’s top line has moved slightly ahead of the Bruins’ best trio. They’re a plus-30 in goal differential in their past 72 games together, which includes 59 goals scored at 5-on-5. MacKinnon has credited his Hart finalist season in part to the play of his linemates. Through 12 games this season, Rantanen led the NHL with 21 points. Landeskog had 10 goals; MacKinnon had nine, plus nine helpers. The best lines in the NHL are the ones that can drag their teams to the postseason on their own. The MacKinnon line’s already done it once, and could do it again.

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