For any NHL player, rookie or veteran, there is always an acclimation period ongoing. When IH spoke with rookie Ottawa Senators forward Mike Hoffman in Columbus during the All-Star break, he explained that the game does not really slow down, rather you personally adjust to the speed.
“You experience that in every league and it happens for every player,” Hoffman said. “Coming into the league, it feels like everything is going quick and you don’t know how much time and space you have, but now having a decent amount of games and experience in the league you definitely pick up on little tips and tricks. You know how the game is played.”
That’s why continuity can make things a lot smoother for a hockey line. For any hockey player, having new linemates requires an adjustment as he learns their idiosyncrasies. For the best lines, chemistry can appear seamless, but acclimating to a linemate’s tendencies, knowing his strengths and weaknesses, and thus finding a better rhythm, are inevitable. These five lines are the most productive forward lines in the NHL, per leftwinglock.com.
Ondrej Palat-Tyler Johnson-Nikita Kucherov
Line Production: 27 goals
The best example of how insanely good this line has been, and how highly valued its players are, would be Tampa Bay’s power play opportunity against Carolina on Tuesday. The Bolts lined up in a traditional 1-3-1 with four forwards and one defenseman. The high-priced offseason addition from two seasons ago, Valtteri Filppula, was not one of those forwards. Neither was Ryan Callahan, the player who the Lightning acquired for future Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis and then signed to a lucrative extension this past offseason.
Instead of the Cup winner and Olympian, it was the Palat-Johnson-Kucherov line…and Steven Stamkos. And Stamkos was the fourth wheel on the date; this power play did not have Stamkos as the focal point, like one would expect considering he is one of the greatest snipers ever to play hockey. The Lightning man advantage ran more like Philadephia’s power play, with Kucherov and Johnson along the half-wall, slinging the puck around. They would interchange with defenseman/man-advantage quarterback Anton Stralman, and pass down low to Ondrej Palat for the jam play, or look for the pass through the slot to Stamkos.
The comparison to the Flyers is fascinating because Kucherov and Johnson are playing the roles that Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek take on. Not only do Kucherov and Johnson have intensified duties on the power play, but apparently their line has carte blanche for who assumes puck-handling duties on zone entries. Often, some iteration of Johnson-Palat, Johnson-Kucherov, or Kucherov-Palat are the primary and secondary puck-handlers spearheading the zone entry. But Stamkos is no slouch. Even coming off his devastating leg injury, the Lightning captain reminded the world — in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal last season — that he could go end-to-end when he beat everyone on the ice.
The importance bestowed to this line is because they are so good at passing, and so good at positioning themselves offensively, that they have Stamkos relegated to a rank-and-file role. It is an egalitarian power play that is effective because the high-low, east-west passing allows all of the players to switch in and out of spots on the ice, making them nearly impossible to defend. And this is especially true if the penalty kill is late on a rotation or misses its assignment. Every player on the Bolts’ power play is so offensively gifted that they will capitalize on that mistake.
The more one watches this line, the more impressive the passing seems. They can make the stretch, the intermediate, and the short pass. They are wizards at touch passing and winning races to where the puck is moving next. Their off-the-puck ability is stellar, allowing them to support each other and position themselves where the puck is going next. On the other side of the puck, they anticipate and situate themselves in passing lanes and shooting lanes so that they can interrupt opposing scoring opportunities.
Members of the line pass off the boards and in traffic areas to their teammates extremely effectively – allowing for very crisp zone exits and neutral zone transitions — because there is conspicuous trust in each other to advance the puck and win the one-on-one play that is coming. What is remarkable about this line is how efficient they are in their touches and how they continue to get the better of the top competition in the NHL. Kucherov and Johnson are third and fourth in points per 60 minutes, respectively; Palat is 45th, right in front of Anze Kopitar. The Lightning depth is absurd and this line has been a revelation.
Reilly Smith-Patrice Bergeron-Brad Marchand
Line Production: 24 goals
Brad Marchand is at his best when he is allowed to freelance. With Marchand, the good almost always outweighs the bad, but when the bad happens, the right players need to be on the ice to nullify the mistake. Marchand is as shifty as they come, and his soft hands and confidence enable him to try dazzling moves on zone entries and in areas of the ice where there is a defined risk-reward factor. The reward is a better scoring opportunity; the risk is a quick counterattack. Many times, Marchand can pull off the sleek move and get into the middle or past the defenseman. But when he commits a turnover, it is refreshing that Bergeron is there to clean up the mess and get the puck back.
Patrice Bergeron is the permanent safety valve on this line, and he is the crown jewel of the advanced stats community. A Selke Trophy winner and world-class two-way center, he glides up and down the ice like a free safety picking his moment to pounce. Arguably no other superstar touches the puck less. Yet, the Bruins dominate the puck when he is out there. Bergeron’s Einstein-level hockey brain enables him to make the right decision consistently and foil opponents’ offensive incursions. He knows when to retreat to higher ice for a possible one-timer opportunity, and when to pass before the window closes and the defensemen gets set and extends his stick.
Bergeron understands the perfect angle to forecheck and how to back pressure and snatch the puck without getting a penalty. He excels in the faceoff circle and works himself off the dot and into the ideal position – whether he is rolling to the net, sliding laterally to the hashmarks for a shot, or coming back to the puck to provide support. Bergeron plays the central role on the line, and Marchand and Reilly Smith are much more successful hockey players because they are often his linemates.
This line succeeds because these players understand the Boston system and what is required of them. Still, they are also unique. No one plays quite like Bergeron, and no one plays quite like Marchand. Once Smith was acquired in the Tyler Seguin trade, he was going to be molded in the organizations’ vision. That said, Smith is hardly fungible; he is a versatile, jack-of-all-trades forward.
This trio excels on the forecheck because they hem teams into their own zone, utilize their defensemen, and space themselves well and crash the net hard. They are not especially dangerous on the transition, their zone entries are decent, and no one is a sharpshooter or transcendent playmaker. Rather, they all are very smart players who anticipate the flow of the puck and position themselves in the best way to flourish. With the exception of Marchand, they don’t beat opponents one-on-one; rather, their scoring prowess comes from dogged pursuit of the puck and layered support in all three zones.
Vladimir Tarasenko-Jori Lehtera-Jaden Schwartz
Line Production: 23 goals
Of the five lines cited in this piece, the STL line is the most eclectic. There is Vladimir Tarasenko, the pronounced super-talent who has one of the best shot releases in the game and first-rate scoring instinct. Also, he is built like a boulder, so his strength on and off the puck makes him nearly impossible to stop. Then there is Jaden Schwartz, a diminutive winger who has outstanding vision and anticipation. It allows him to pickpocket opposing skaters and consistently manufacture scoring chances.
Schwartz’s ability to read where the play needs to develop in order to generate the best sequence is often game-altering. He protects the puck well, is a prolific playmaker, and his work defensively makes this line seem like it is constantly on the offensive. Center Jori Lehtera is the quarterback, the point guard. His faceoff win percentage is 54.2. He distributes extremely well, and does everything at a very impressive level. Lehtera is the straight man in the comedy sketch – illuminating his peers, but subtly making everything cohesive.
Lehtera is very good, but really, Schwartz and Tarasenko are the dynamic duo. Tarasenko has such a heavy and penetrating shot that he can score from long range and aggressively attack. He has a 3.42 points per 60 minutes, good for eighth in the NHL. And his skill set complements Schwartz, who routinely displays patience and composure. Schwartz can outwait the defense in order to find the best passing lane or shooting angle. He can work the corners and grind beneath the goal line endlessly because he has the patience to recognize that enough offensive-zone time will lead to something good.
Schwartz’s points per 60 minutes is 3.10, ranking him 14th in the league. Tarasenko and Schwartz are also a good yin and yang because they seek out different parts of the ice. Schwartz loves the front of the net and around the crease. Tarasenko likes that area too, obviously, but his deadly shot allows him to hang around the outskirts of the home-plate area more because he can find more space and still score from there.
Natural chemistry is an underrated component for what makes a line work. This forward line has played the most together of any grouping on the Blues, and some of that is because they gelled almost instantly. Each player instinctively knows where linemate X is cutting or where they will be for support along the boards in the defensive zone. All of these players have very good hockey sense, and the ability to cut off passes and counterattack quickly is their recurrent theme.
Brandon Saad-Jonathan Toews-Marian Hossa
Line Production: 22 goals
The success of this line originates from a complete mastery of the neutral zone and defensive zone. Weirdly, their worst zone is probably the offensive zone because they are so brilliant in the other two. Toews’ line tracks better than any trio in the NHL; the stickwork and angle taken to dislodge the puck on each takeaway are breathtaking.
An underrated component of their efficacy is how they come off the half-wall and corners. The little bump passes along the boards or into the middle of the ice, which allows Chicago to start the transition, are what allows these guys to spend so little time in the defensive zone. They support magnificently, eliminate room and time splendidly, and can really zip a pass to stretch the ice and make a quick zone exit. Logically, they are three of the top four forwards on the Blackhawks in Corsi, despite playing against the opponents’ best line.
In the neutral zone, each player comes back to the puck if the defensemen are holding possession on a reset. The puck movement is always crisp and reflective; if the player with possession is coming into the zone with little speed and two defensemen are about to challenge him, a player off the puck will dive in and push the defense back. Or both off-the-puck players can swing to the far side and, if/when they get the puck, enter the zone with support. When possible, this line loves the give-and-go in the neutral zone to enter the offensive zone with speed.
In the offensive zone, it comes down to puck protection. Hossa has probably the best shot of the three, but none of them are snipers or the puck-magnet fulcrum that Patrick Kane is for his line. They all pass fantastically, but the ability for each player to hold onto the puck despite heavy pressure is incredible. And that allows them to attack off the rush or cycle and work in tandem with the defense. Like Kane, all three of these players are cognizant of pace and what tempo they are trying to set.
A favorite move of Kane’s is when he enters the zone and immediately slows the play down, sometimes even buttonhooking and moving upstream away from the goal. The forwards on Toews line are also not afraid to slow everything down and reassess. The Toews line’s M.O. on the rush is incisive and fluid. A sharp pass or two leads to the best-situated forward gaining inside position and doing his best on a scoring chance. But if the rush chance isn’t there, they can start the cycle because once they have that five-man raid going the other team is helpless.
A fun hockey tidbit for people who watch the Blackhawks a lot is to focus on the F3 for Chicago, especially if it is Hossa. His ability to completely thwart an opponent’s zone exit and establish possession as the gap-plugging F3 is a delight.
A revealing example of how extraordinary this line is was the lengths that Penguins coach Mike Johnston went to in order to move Sidney Crosby away from Toews line on the Wednesday before the All-Star break. The Toews line gracefully shuts down top players while procuring lots of scoring chances of their own. And it all starts in the defensive zone.
Andrew Ladd-Bryan Little-Blake Wheeler
Line Production: 20 goals
During media day at the All-Star break, Duncan Keith raved about the Winnipeg Jets and how big and skilled they were. When the Chicago Blackhawks’ defenseman talked about them, it was palpable that he wanted to convey to the hockey community that we should not sleep on these guys because they are formidable and a frustrating team to play against. The Little line has been at the forefront of the Jets’ success.
From a possession standpoint, Wheeler has the best Corsi, but is also protected the most of the three. That said, he does start the lowest percentage of faceoffs in the offensive zone. And faceoffs is an area where there is room for improvement; Little’s faceoff win percentage is 48.5, and any coach will tell you that faceoff success rate is a team statistic. Little needs to be better, but so do Ladd and Wheeler at combating off the draw and recognizing where the puck is so they can knock it back to a Jets defenseman. Regardless, the line is an emphatic positive for the Jets and the paramount factor for why this team is poised to make its first postseason appearance since relocating to Winnipeg.
Generally speaking, we usually link large things with power. And with this trio, the analogy is apt. Little’s line plays a heavy game. They can buffet the opponent on the forecheck and really strike the puck with impressive velocity. Appropriation of the puck generally results in a game of keep-away where the triumvirate can activate the cycle and get the defensemen involved. Off the rush they are dangerous as well, as Ladd and Wheeler thrive when they play north-south hockey and can make the passes and charges into spaces in order to free up room for a teammate or set up a scoring chance.
Defensively, this line is solid. They keep their sticks active and will come back toward the defense in the Jets’ own zone to assist the breakout. They can fly around and pound flesh when they don’t have the puck, but they can also cover a lot of ice in a short time because they are big and fast.
Overall, this line beats you with simplicity. Their movement is mostly linear on and off the puck. Little can be a primary puck-handler and snake his way through the defense, but that is neither Ladd nor Wheeler’s game. Ladd and Wheeler shoot through gaps or burst past the defensemen on the perimeter with little stickhandling involved.
If this line doesn’t have the puck, they are going to aggressively challenge you and try to physically push you off possession. Having said that, Winnipeg is last in the league in minor penalties – meaning they have committed the most — with Ladd and Wheeler showing up as notable offenders. Like any team, the Jets want to play even strength and not down a man, so trying to stay on the right side of the law while embracing their team’s grit-centric philosophy is a thorny situation they will need to improve in the coming months.