Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty have all been very good this season, but are they the best line in the NHL this season?
So far in this lockout shorten season the Carolina Hurricanes top line of Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty has been very effective and the Hurricanes team is reaping the benefit. The addition of Semin has taken the somewhat new combination of EStaal & Tlusty to a whole new level and this newly formed line has helped lead the Hurricanes to 1st place in the Southeast Division. We all know they are putting up points, but how do they compare to other top lines in the NHL? Are they really one of, if not the best line in the game today? Well let's take a look and compare them to other top performers this season and you be the judge.
Because of the thousands of NHL line combinations, I had to set a qualifier for my analysis. The standard I set was that line combinations must be on-ice together for at least 15% of each team's even strength time so are this season. So while a line of Vinny LeCavalier, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis is impressive, being on the ice together for only 2.4% of the time at even strength disqualified them. Other lines were also left off because of not hitting the 15% at even strength. There were 22 lines from 18 teams that met my qualification. I will give you the top 10 in four categories; combined goals, combined points, combined +/- and percentage of points at even strength. All numbers are through Saturday, March 9th. I will also follow up each chart with a brief summation.
|Line Combinations||Team||Percentage of ES Time||Combined Goals|
|Bozak/Kessel/van Riemsdyk||Maple Leafs||22.2%||27|
Pittsburgh's top line leads the league with 35 goals, but there are three other lines not to far behind, all tied with 32 goals on the season. In that group is the Canes line of Semin/Staal/Tlusty. Tlusty leads the group with 13 goals, Staal has 12 and Semin has 7. The Canes trio is tied for 2nd with Sabres and Islanders top line. The two biggest surprises to me in this top 10 are the Bruins line and Canadians line. Patrice Bergeron usually leads a very strong defensive line, so scoring 26 goals so far this season is an added bonus. Tomas Plekanec usually does the same, frequently going against the opposing team's top line. Add to that, Rene Bourque hasn't played since February 21st and those numbers look even better. Neither of these lines for Boston or Montreal would probably be considered their "top line", but the results speak to why these two teams have the most points in the Eastern Conference at this time.
|Line Combinations||Team||Combined Points||Points Per Game|
|Bozak/Kessel/van Riemsdyk||Maple Leafs||57||2.19|
Again, the Penguins top line is at the top of the list and they have a significant 9 point lead over the 2nd place Hurricanes line. But as with the top goal scoring lines, the top 4 are the same and there is a decent drop off to the 5th place line. Carolina's group is looking really strong in this category, averaging 3.21 ppg. Staal leads them with 30 points, good for 5th in the NHL. Semin has 26 points and is tied for 5th in the league in assists. Tlusty rounds out the line with 21 points, 13 of those are goals. It makes for a pretty dynamic group. Semin is passer, Tlusty the goal scorer, and Staal does a little of both. But really each of these guys can hurt you in multiple ways and it's proving to be tough to stop. The Canes top line has only gone 5 games this season without registering a point.
Again, Boston's Bergeron line surprises me here. I guess it's just the way I think of them because they put up similar numbers last season, but they are showing improvement this year. The Jets line has also shown a nice improvement from last season, increasing their ppg by almost 0.4. Other new lines that have seemed to mesh together well have been Colorado's top line with PA Parenteau (and somewhat Jamie McGinn) and Toronto's with James van Riemsdyk. There is still about half the season left, but it will be interesting to see if these new lines (along with Carolina's new line) can continue their stellar performance.
|Line Combinations||Team||Combined +/-|
Often a much debated stat, the combined +/- shows you're not only scoring, but limiting the number of times you're scored on. And so far this season, the Hurricanes top line is doing that better than anyone else. The surprising thing is that none would really be considered top defensive forwards, but the combination of all three is working out well. They are all in the NHL +/- top 10 with Staal leading the league at +19. That a far cry from last year's -14 and he was dead last at one point last season. The Bergeron line comes in at 2nd and the Sidney Crosby line rounds out the top three.
The biggest thing this chart/stat points out to me is the lines that are not on the list. The Sabres and Islanders lines have been in the top 4 of both other charts, but are near the bottom of the combined +/-. The John Tavares line is actually last of all 22 lines with a combined -25. The Sabres line is close to the bottom, but at least does come through with a combined +1. And the Toronto line of Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and van Reimsdyk while doing a good job scoring, checks in with a combined -10 on the season.
This stat probably speaks more to the overall team than any other, as all lines on this list are on teams with winning records. Three Blackhawks lines are on the list and they have only lost 1 regulation game so far this season. Two Bruins lines are on the list, they are 2nd in the East in points. The Canes, Penguins, Canucks and Ducks are all in 1st place in their divisions and the Kings are 4th in their conference. Again, it is a debatable stat, but it does show you are doing a better job of scoring than getting scored on.
Percentage of Points at Even Strength
|Line Combinations||Team||Total Combined Points||Combined PP Points||% of Points at ES|
The top three on this list are definitely not considered even the top 2 lines on their teams. The reason Detroit's 4th line is at 100% is because they get virtually no PP time. While the Ducks & Blackhawks lines see a little more PP time, either are 1st units, so their time is limited. The top "top line" here really starts with the Jets. Again, the Hurricanes Staal line is on the list as well as some other top performers. But is this a chart/stat that shows an inept PP or one that shows a good line at even strength? That's a question that can be answered both ways, but I'll take it as a positive.
Again, as with the +/- chart, the thing here is who is missing from the list. The top point producing line in Pittsburgh comes in at 72.09%. 24 of their combined points come with the man advantage and two other top-notch players (Evgeni Malkin & James Neal) are out their with Crosby & Chris Kunitz. If you subtract their and Carolina's top line PP points, the Hurricanes top line would be in 1st in Combined Total Points. Also absent from this chart is the Islanders top line. While they score a lot, almost half of their combined points come while on the PP. This could also be a reason for their low +/-. It could be argued that while they are a terrific scoring line, they don't really play a complete two-way game.
Only two of the twenty-two lines actually made the top 10 in all four categories. That would be Carolina's EStaal line and Boston's Bergeron line. So these two would have to definitely be considered in the argument of the best line in the NHL right now. I would also include Pittsburgh's Crosby line because they lead two categories and are 3rd in another. I also believe that an argument could be made for Buffalo's Cody Hodgson line and maybe even New York's Tavares line & Winnipeg's Bryan Little line, but while good I don't consider any of those three the best.
So in my eyes it comes down the Carolina's Tlusty/Staal/Semin line, Boston's Marchand/Bergeron/Seguin line and Pittsburgh's Kunitz/Crosby/Dupuis line. An valid argument could be made for either one, so what do you think? If you had to pick one line at this time, which one would it be? Which line is currently the best line in the business?