Combinations hardly last in the NHL, and there are several reasons why.
It’s only rarely as simple as fitting the three most talented, compatible, or likeminded players onto one single unit and never having to think twice about their performance or chemistry. There are injuries, trajectories, paydays, philosophical changes, stagnations and concerns to address at other points in the lineup. It’s so incredibly difficult to check all these boxes; it’s why Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are the exception on the top line with the Boston Bruins, and no where close to the rule.
It’s also why many of the highest-performing lines from the NHL’s currently paused season are new ones. Yes, that trio in Boston is still likely the NHL’s best, and many other lines have been able to repeat their strong campaigns as well, but the majority of standout combos from this season were only recently strung together.
Here are some of the best lines to emerge in 2019-20:
Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Yamamoto
Not long after his recall from Bakersfield of the American Hockey League just before the turn on the calendar, Kailer Yamamoto changed the dynamics up front for the Edmonton Oilers.
His arrival didn’t just provide the organization with a first competent scoring unit that wasn’t anchored by Connor McDavid in quite some time, but a line that was even out-doing the contributions from the best player in the world and his less talented constituents.
In parts of 27 games, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins and Yamamoto combined for 30 goals to just nine against. The predictive data would indicate that their bloated 77 percent even-strength goal share would have levelled out considerably over the course of a larger sample. However what can’t be skewed by future results over time is the job this trio did at the most critical point in the season — when McDavid was out six games with a lower-body injury in mid-February.
Thrust into top-line responsibility, Draisaitl went on a scoring binge and emerged as the clear favourite in the Hart Trophy race. All told together with Nugent-Hopkins and Yamamoto, the line combined for 29 points in six games, and the Oilers were unexpectedly able to firm up their position in the postseason standings with McDavid on the sideline.
Proving the preface to this article to be true, Oilers coach Dave Tippett had actually broken up the trio before the NHL pressed pause on the season in an effort to send help for McDavid.
Pettersson, Miller, Boeser
The Vancouver Canucks’ “Lotto Line” is another trio that failed to reach the finish line on the NHL’s abbreviated season, but that wasn’t the reason I was initially reluctant to include them on this list. Instead it was more to do with the fact that it hasn’t seemed to matter who the third element was; Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller would produce regardless.
With Boeser, however, we do have the most extensive sample, and it’s certainly an impressive one. In over 444 minutes across 56 games, they ran up a 60 percent even-strength possession mark and scored 33 times, while adding another 27 when factoring in time spent on the power play.
Vancouver might be better optimized with Boeser flanking Bo Horvat, and Tyler Toffoli was no hindrance to Pettersson and Miller, but the “Lotto Line” is the best scoring trio head coach Travis Green can throw out there.
Panarin, Strome, Fast
What the Breadman touches turns to gold.
Artemi Panarin formed one of the league’s most potent lines with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. Now in his first year on Broadway, the New York Rangers’ high-priced offensive dynamo is once again the driving force behind one of the highest-scoring lines in the NHL. Only this season he’s elevating players to previously-unattainable heights.
Both Jesper Fast and particularly Ryan Strome were in the midst of career seasons while deployed mostly with Panarin, with the trio outscoring opponents 29-11 at even strength this season. Panarin kicked up some genuine Hart Trophy buzz with 32 goals and 95 points in 69 games, while Strome was flirting with a 70-point pace after averaging just more than 30 over the last four seasons.
Working in tandem with the Rangers’ other top-six line anchored by break-out star Mika Zibanejad, Panarin, Strome, and Fast helped the Rangers accelerate through their rebuild process with a strong push toward the postseason before the brakes were pumped on the regular year.
Stamkos, Point, Kucherov
While they have for several seasons formed a plane of attack on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s lethal power play, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov had only sparingly taken regular shifts together through the organization’s decade run of dominance.
It was a different story this season, however, with Jon Cooper assembling his three best forwards, as well as three of the top 13 scorers from last season. They were unveiled in conjunction with Brayden Point’s delayed season debut, and eventually logged 288 total regular-season minutes together. The results were largely as you would expect, with the Lightning trio exceeding a blazing rate of six goals per hour at the five-on-five condition.
Bonino, Grimaldi, Smith
If there’s a common theme on each of the aforementioned lines it’s that elite players are helping to drive their success. That’s not the case with the most consistently positive trio for the Nashville Predators this season.
Nick Bonino, Craig Smith and Rocco Grimaldi delivered something special from the third line slot in Nashville, out-scoring competitors 29-11 to go along with a near 55 percent possession mark in 400-plus minutes at five-on-five.
The on-ice save percentage is through the roof for these three, but the shot and scoring chance share is firmly in their favour as well, lending evidence to their dominance.
Stone, Pacioretty, Stephenson
It didn’t seem like anything more than a depth move in early December when the Vegas Golden Knights swung an agreement with the team that beat them in Stanley Cup Final two seasons ago, and landed Chandler Stephenson from the Washington Capitals for a fifth-round pick.
Yet, not soon after, Stephenson performed like an upgrade on highly-paid centre Paul Stastny, and served as an incredibly effective access point between the Golden Knights’ two highest-paid players, Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty.
The three of them steamrolled the competition in 223 five-on-five minutes, running up a goal differential of 20-5 with a 161-70 shot share and 62 percent possession, while leading all NHL lines (minimum 200 minutes) in expected goals, with a percentage higher than 70.
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