NHL

Ranking the best lines in the NHL right now

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9:00 AM ET

When it comes to the best lines in the NHL, Ryan O’Reilly has an expert opinion.

He has centered a few great ones during his career, but the St. Louis Blues star is more familiar with having to defend against them. Like that one on the Dallas Stars that’s currently reigning over the rest of the NHL: Jason Robertson‘s line with Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz.

“I just remember playing against them, you had to work to close that gap and be tight to them. Because if you weren’t close, they’re dynamic. They’re gonna be making plays if there’s that separation. They’ll just eat you up,” O’Reilly told me recently. “One little breakdown. One little bit of separation. The next thing you know, it’s in the back of the net. So it’s extremely tough against those guys.”

That’s what the great lines do. O’Reilly said the key to the best ones is the way they read the play, which is what Robertson’s line does so adeptly. Three talented players, acting as one. Even a single line like that can be an energy source, powering a team for weeks.

Here’s our ranking of the top 20 lines in the NHL this season. Keep in mind that coaches, by their nature, frequently chop up their lineups. Hence, some of the groups here might no longer be together at the moment but could be down the line. Also, that line mixing meant some players were left out of the ranking: Kevin Fiala has had a good season for the Los Angeles Kings, but he has spent at least 10 minutes with six different line combinations.

Injuries played a role, too. The Colorado Avalanche had two line combos that were outstanding last season. But injuries to Gabriel Landeskog, Valeri Nichushkin and now Nathan MacKinnon meant they didn’t make this list.

The basic standards for this ranking: We looked at lines that played a minimum of 75 minutes together at even strength. We tried to balance actual results with underlying numbers. In some cases, we’ve rewarded lines for the work they’ve done. In others, we’re ranking them based on how they project with additional ice time together.

Here are the top 20 lines in the NHL so far this season. Stats courtesy of Money Puck, Natural Stat Trick and Evolving Hockey.

Praising a Buffalo line that doesn’t feature Tage Thompson feels like praising a Bills receiver not named Stefon Diggs, and yet it’s a different Sabres trio that makes the cut here. Cozens and his rookie wingers are like a shot of adrenaline for coach Don Granato’s team, playing with pace and generating more high-danger shot attempts per 60 minutes (22.74) than Thompson’s line with Jeff Skinner and Alex Tuch (19.75).

“It’s the speed, the chemistry, the speed and skill of those three players together,” Granato said. “We’re seeing Cozens’ leadership in bringing those two along as fast as that.”

Every shift is an adventure for this young Canadiens trio. Through 26 games, they’re averaging 5.0 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 … while giving up 4.2 goals per 60 minutes. They have a 16.5% shooting percentage while Montreal has a .833 save percentage when when all three are on the ice.

“We click well together,” Dach said. “We just have to tidy up some things on the defensive end.” Please don’t. This is too much fun.

Lindholm was like that meme from “Silicon Valley” where Zach Woods is staring mournfully through a rain-streaked window. The center watched Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau leave Calgary and take their 82 combined goals with them.

But the Flames did a solid for Lindholm, a 40-goal scorer himself last season. Huberdeau is one of the NHL’s top playmakers. Toffoli knows his way around the net. They haven’t come close to the offensive highs of Lindholm’s previous unit, but they’ve posted some impressive defensive numbers so far.

Ever since Johnny Hockey decided to take his talents to Columbus, there was the expectation that the Blue Jackets would load up a line with Gaudreau and Laine. When they’re on the ice together at 5-on-5, the two wingers have an expected goals percentage that’s 15% better relative to their teammates. Jenner earned the chance to be the man in the middle.

This line has room for improvement: It’s better offensively but worse defensively than expected. Losing Laine to injury for a stretch didn’t help a promising line trying to find its rhythm.

This is a tricky line to rank. The best version of an Auston Matthews line is one that features Mitch Marner. But it’s hard to be confident that coach Sheldon Keefe will put the M&M boys back together when Marner is currently lighting up the NHL like the Griswolds’ Christmas light display while playing with John Tavares. In fact, his best numbers have been away from Matthews this season.

While Marner and Tavares have cycled through wingers, these three have stuck together as a unit and a peculiar one at that: They only earn around 45% of the shot attempts at 5-on-5 but are giving up just 0.93 goals against per 60 minutes while averaging 3.73 goals scored. This is further evidence that Matthews is one of the most underrated defensive players in the NHL.

The Lightning’s top two lines were both contenders for this list, as Steven Stamkos‘s trio with Nick Paul and Alex Killorn had outpaced this group as far as actual output: 4.58 goals vs. 2.5 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.

But the Kucherov line has the stronger possession numbers and outpaces the Stamkos line in expected goals. A line with Point and Kucherov is not going to shoot 7.7% at 5-on-5. It’s just a matter of time before they catch fire.

The Misfit Line have been a trio since the Knights’ inaugural season and were kept together when Smith re-signed last summer. You know what you’re getting here: Intense forechecking, offensive chances, a little feistiness courtesy of Mr. Marchessault and an eerie Sedins-like hive mind chemistry.

“We want to play fast, we have the same mindset, and I think that’s why we’re good together,” Karlsson said earlier this season. While they still dominate in puck possession and high-danger chances, they’ve been uncharacteristically leaky defensively this season.

This is one of the most effective checking lines in the NHL that also offers up some offensive pop, as Martinook (seven goals) and Staal (six) have hit the back of the net with frequency through 26 games. Staal and Fast have been linemates for the last three seasons. Martinook essentially took over Nino Niederreiter‘s spot with this duo after the latter joined the Nashville Predators.

I thought about putting some version of Seth JarvisSebastian Aho-Some Other Winger here, but the Staal line is getting nearly 64% of the shot attempts and limiting opponents to 1.5 goals per 60 minutes. Jordan Staal has been a Selke Trophy finalist only once. How is that possible?

Beniers was the preseason favorite to win rookie of the year because no matter what line the Kraken had him center, he was going to be flanked by a couple of strong veteran wingers. For a while, it was Eberle and Jaden Schwartz, forming a line with offensive pop but giving away too much defensively.

That changed when analytics darling McCann was added to his wing, forming a line that earns 61% of the expected goals including a stellar 1.78 expected goals against per 60 minutes.

The Penguins’ second line gets 62.6% of the expected goals, 62.5% of the scoring chances and 72.0% of the high-danger scoring chances when it’s on the ice. The analytics say that they’re better defensively than the results would indicate, but a Evgeni Malkin line in 2022 isn’t out there to be a stopper.

I hesitated putting this line on the list because it’s basically been broken up twice. First when coach Gerard Gallant replaced Kakko with Jimmy Vesey, and then when he slid Zibanejad in the middle of Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere.

But this trio, which played over 130 minutes together this season, was demonstrably their most effective line and one of the better ones in the NHL — in quality of play, if not direct results. As the raw numbers go, they generated only four goals and surrendered four, with a paltry shooting percentage of 4.49%. As the analytics go, they had an expected goals percentage of 65.9% with 4.3 expected goals per 60 minutes. The potential is there if Gallant decides to remake this group in his line blender.

The Oilers famously keep their two megastars separated most of the time. McDavid and Draisaitl have only averaged 6:06 of ice time per game together at 5-on-5 this season. It’s an impressive amount of restraint given that the duo have outscored opponents by 21 goals over the last three seasons.

When Edmonton does unite the mega powers, as they have with Hyman for nearly 85 minutes this season, the Oilers get 70% of the goals and 61.3% of the scoring chances. Small sample size acknowledged, they averaged 6.39 goals per 60 minutes. They’re like a kaiju that the Oilers can unleash to stomp a city when the mood suits them.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said before the season that Guentzel is “one of the few guys that can think the game on the same level as a player like Crosby,” which is why this duo has clicked for about seven years. Rakell showed potential as their lineup after last season’s trade deadline — and what an incentive to re-sign in Pittsburgh, eh?

The trio has built on that tease, with a plus-8 goal differential and a stellar 1.65 goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 in 22 games.

New Jersey’s top line had been one of the best two-way units in the NHL. Hughes and Bratt worked well together, with a plus-12 goal differential over the last three seasons when they share the ice. Haula joined them after Ondrej Palat‘s injury, and away they’ve gone: 3.9 goals per 60 minutes and earning nearly 70% of the scoring chances.

They’re devastating off the rush but know how to take care of their own zone, too, thanks in large part to Hughes’ noticeable improvement as a defender. An incredible line for the Devils, although one coach Lindy Ruff decided to break up … for now.

The first quarter of the season was a forgettable one for Ottawa, but this line was a keeper. Coach D.J. Smith flipped Giroux onto a line with Tkachuk and Stutzle to replace an offensively challenged — at least this season — Drake Batherson. He found a trio that combines Tkachuk’s consistency, Stutzle’s high-pace game and Giroux’s veteran savvy.

The results have been stellar: They get 63.8% of the expected goals, 65% of the high-danger scoring chances and are giving up just 1.63 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play.

The numbers for this line are absolutely staggering. They outscored opponents 8-1 at 5-on-5, for a 0.46 goals against per 60 minutes average. They earned 62% of the shot attempts and 63% of the scoring chances. They were better defensively than the Hughes line and paced with them offensively.

Hischier was the fulcrum of the line, putting together a Selke Trophy-worthy season while tallying the second most even-strength points on the Devils (20) behind Hughes. Ruff shuffled up his lines recently, moving Jesper Bratt with Tatar and Hischier, and elevating Dawson Mercer to the Hughes line. Based on sample size, we have to give the nod to this line … but that new unit with Bratt could very well eclipse it.

The Panthers traded Huberdeau for Tkachuk, so naturally they tried to recreate the dynamic they had last season: Barkov on one line, Tkachuk sliding next to Sam Bennett on the second line. But near the end of October, Florida got a taste of what Tkachuk could do with Barkov and Verhaeghe, and now they’re feasting on opposing teams.

The trio have a plus-8 goal differential and earn just over 72% of the scoring chances. They average 5.85 goals per 60 minutes while giving up just 1.18 goals per 60. A steamroller of a line that’s been thwarted only by Barkov’s injury troubles.

The top line on the Golden Knights had a plus-13 goal differential through 26 games, which is to be expected with Eichel scoring 21 of his 29 points at even strength. But the reason this line dominates isn’t its offense: The trio averaged 1.42 goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, and the Knights have a .942 save percentage when they’re on the ice together.

Some of that is to be expected when Mark Stone, perhaps the best defensive winger in the NHL, is patrolling out there. But don’t sleep on how much Eichel’s defensive game has improved. Add Stephenson to those two and Vegas hit the jackpot.

Marchand and Bergeron are no strangers to these lists. On our 2018 ranking, their line with David Pastrnak was second overall to the Avalanche’s trio of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, whose absence on this list can be chalked up primarily to injuries.

The Bruins’ top line put DeBrusk with their most dynamic duo, and it’s been stellar: According to Money Puck, they have the NHL’s best expected goals ratio at 70.6%. They are allowing 0.48 goals per 60 minutes. They’re earning nearly 70% of the scoring chances. The Bruins had a .988 save percentage with them on the ice! Another season of Bergeron meant another dynamic top line for the B’s. But not the NHL’s best …

There was probably some hipster-pick, analytics-brain way to argue against the Stars’ headliners as the best line in the NHL. I could mention how Money Puck has them with the 21st highest expected goals percentage (59.8%). Or that Evolving Hockey has them at 14th in goals-for percentage (73.4%), behind some of the lines already listed here. There are undoubtedly counterarguments to the argument, counternarratives to the narrative. There always are.

None of them can dissuade me from crowning these kings.

Through 25 games, this trio has outscored opponents 23-8, good for a 1.96 goals against per 60 minutes average to balance out their offensive dominance. They gobble up 58% of the shot attempts and 65% of the high-danger shot attempts. Hintz is the defensive ace. Pavelski is the score-at-all-costs veteran. Robertson is the high-octane goal scorer whose 23 goals in 26 games led the NHL. They’re the gold standard at the moment, the line that’s worth the price of admission or your minutes streaming the game.

About the only thing they haven’t earned is a nickname. Which is a shame, because every great line deserves one. And this is a great, great line.

Honorable mentions

Anaheim Ducks: Trevor ZegrasAdam HenriqueTroy Terry
Colorado Avalanche: Artturi LehkonenNathan MacKinnonMikko Rantanen
Detroit Red Wings: David PerronDylan LarkinDominik Kubalik
Los Angeles Kings: Trevor MoorePhillip DanaultViktor Arvidsson
Minnesota Wild: Kirill KaprizovSam SteelMats Zuccarello
New York Islanders: Josh BaileyMathew BarzalOliver Wahlstrom
Toronto Maple Leafs: Nicholas RobertsonJohn TavaresMitchell Marner
Winnipeg Jets: Cole PerfettiMark ScheifeleBlake Wheeler
Vancouver Canucks: Nils HoglanderBo HorvatJ.T. Miller

Jersey Foul of the week

From reader Dustin Perez:

So that’s a Minnesota Wild jersey that celebrates the Dallas Stars, who used to be the Minnesota North Stars. The celebration seems to refer to the Stars’ championship in 1999, but also encompasses Wayne Gretzky’s league-wide number retirement. This is a parfait of Fouls, perfect on its own terms.


Video of the week

Chicago’s Andreas Athanasiou called Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba an $8 million player with zero goals who “tries to hurt guys on the other team” to justify his existence. Coming to Trouba’s defense? Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Pronger, who issued a “stop whining to the media and keep your head up” edict to Athanasiou.

Due respect to Athanasiou, but “hurting guys on the other team” is an indelible skill in this league, especially if the player can stay on the right side of the rule book when doing so. The Rangers don’t win their first-round playoff series last spring if Trouba doesn’t injure Sidney Crosby, and he impacted their second-round series with a hit on Carolina’s Seth Jarvis. Tom Wilson delivered a series of injurious hits during the Washington Capitals‘ Cup run in 2018, earning a three-game suspension for one of them that broke the jaw of Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese.

You don’t want to see anyone injured in this sport. But it happens, and the fact is that a player who can deliver those hits while also playing 21 minutes per game or on the opposite wing of Alex Ovechkin doesn’t only justify their paycheck but becomes coveted.


Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Tage Thompson

Four goals in the first period against the Blue Jackets, five for the game and six points overall on Wednesday night. In the span of three years, Tage Thompson went from being synonymous with one of the Sabres’ most regrettable trades to having 21 goals in 25 games and teasing a run at the single-game NHL scoring record. Incredible.

Loser: Jordan Binnington

St. Louis Blues coach Craig Berube called out Binnington for another on-ice outburst and for jawing with the Pittsburgh bench: “It’s got to stop. It doesn’t help any. Just play goal. Stop the puck.” He then met with Binnington privately to talk about frustrations and emotions. When a dude who played with Ron Hextall has to give lectures about decorum for his goaltender …

Winner: Matt Murray

Murray hasn’t always been an analytics darling, but his performance against the Stars on Tuesday made NHL fancy stats history. According to Money Puck, Murray’s 5.979 goals saved above expected was the best for a goalie in a shutout since modern stats started.

Loser: Harassing grandmas

On Oct. 31, a Toronto Maple Leafs fan tweeted at the grandmother of GM Kyle Dubas that he should be fired for mismanaging the team. Since then, the Leafs are 12-1-4 and within range of first place in their division, thanks in part to Murray, Dubas’ hand-picked goalie, playing outstanding hockey.

Winner: ‘The Mighty Ducks’

The Disney hockey classic was honored by the New York Jets, who wore jerseys from the movie to their game against the Minnesota Vikings … and then they continued the tribute by losing.

Loser: Colorado Avalanche

MacKinnon joins Landeskog, Nichushkin, Josh Manson and Bowen Byram among the team’s injured regulars. It’s been a janky, wonky, weird title defense for the champs. But in the end, they know they just have to get healthy, get in and they can win. Again.


Puck headlines

  • Enjoyed this informative piece from Thibaud Chatel on how to track a hockey game. “Tracking a game should be fun, you are watching hockey and learning stuff. If it gets tiring, it’s a sign you might want to reconsider part of your enterprise.”

  • Interesting take on the Carey Price controversy this week that focuses on the Montreal Canadiens‘ role in it. “As for the Canadiens, it is striking to see that despite all the changes made in the communications department and the marked improvement in media relations specifically, they still found themselves mired in a similar situation, swimming upstream and playing catch-up hockey in terms of public relations.”

  • Ryan Clark’s rookie rankings. It would take a heck of an effort to outshine Logan Thompson, but Stuart Skinner and Pyotr Kochetkov are very much still on my Calder Trophy radar.

  • Examining the Ryan Reaves Effect in Minnesota. “His presence — he’s a veteran guy, obviously his physical presence. There’s no messing around out there. He keeps the room loose, I think, from not being in there all the time.”

  • A Deep Aesthetic Analysis of the NHL’s Digital Board Ad Glitches.” I still think the tech is awesome. I also think the NHL really thought fans would overlook its current limitations more than they have.

  • Rather than Thanksgiving, the Christmas break may be a better barometer for who’s playing for the Stanley Cup beginning in April.

  • Finally, the Devils’ video team really outdid themselves with this Chico Resch-meets-A-ha thing.

Watch The Drop

The latest episode of The Drop features yours truly and Arda Ocal on Jason Robertson, the gifts we’d give to NHL teams, the five coolest items at the NHL Store and the latest puck headlines. Enjoy!

Source : ESPN.com

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