Two months into the season we took a look at what lines around the NHL had been the most dominant at 5-vs-5, with the stipulation that the lines had to spend at least 100 minutes together in that game state as a unit, so we could get some semblance of a decent sample size.
Over halfway through the season, how much has changed? How reliably have those lines held up as the top ones, and are there a definitive top-five this time?
This time, since we’re so deep into the season, the cutoff is a bit higher at 200 minutes played together, so some lines will be different due to injury or other line shakeups. Like last time, we won’t number the lines from one to five, but here are the most dominant lines in the NHL at 5-vs-5 this season.
The most improved line from the first quarter of the season is the keystone of the most improved team, with the Tampa Bay Lightning looking like themselves nowadays. The top line led by Brayden Point has been astonishingly good this season, controlling more than 60 per cent of play on average while they’re on the ice, and nearly 70 per cent of the goals.
A slow start to the season really put Tampa behind the pack for a good stretch of the season, but they’re so red hot right now that they’re pushing for the division lead, thanks in large part to this line’s dominance.
Point specifically keeps carving out his niche as one of the league’s best two-way players and Nikita Kucherov is producing offensively in the way he’s expected to. Combine those two elite talents with another excellent two-way player like Ondrej Palat and you have one of the league’s most devastatingly capable lines. They come at you viciously from every area, and they don’t give up much in their own zone either.
Like I broke down in Truth by Numbers a couple weeks ago, every time Sidney Crosby goes down, Evgeni Malkin takes it to another level. That has come in the form of mastering shot quality both in shot location and pre-shot movement, and driving ridiculous offensive results with Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel.
Guentzel finds himself on a top line in the league once again despite being the only carryover, which is both a testament to his ability and also a clear indication of just how excellent Crosby and Malkin are.
The Malkin line is all about high event hockey. They produce more chances than anyone else in the league, but they give up their fair share too. That can lead to some off nights and frustrating games when things go against them, but it also makes the Penguins incredibly dangerous to deal with, and one of the more entertaining teams in the league to watch.
No list of the best lines in the NHL is complete without the Bruins’ top line. Like clockwork, the most consistent line in the NHL over the last four seasons just plain outworks opponents in all three zones, and they have the ability to create quick strike offence even on nights where things aren’t going their way.
David Pastrnak has among the league’s best shots, perhaps the best one-timer of anyone, and his linemates happen to be absurdly excellent set up men, not that they have trouble scoring themselves either.
Earlier in the season they were all offence, not much defence, which was a bit of a surprise considering recent seasons, but they’ve regulated over the last two months and are now taking the tough matchups and performing excellent on the defensive side too.
Sticking around and leading the division in a year where no one expected much out of them, the Vancouver Canucks have been a team of bright spots and exciting futures this season. And the brightest of all of them is that incredible top line led by Elias Pettersson.
The Pettersson line has actually fallen off in controlling both shot volume and shot quality by location compared to the first quarter of the season, but they’ve increased their control of slot passes, and maintained a completely consistent pattern of controlling two thirds of all goals scored while they’re on the ice.
You may have noticed a bit of a pattern among these top lines; that their goals for percentages have all outpaced their other differentials, which could imply that they’re all getting relatively lucky, but that’s true of each line’s expected goals for percentages according to SPORTLOGiQ’s data as well, they’re each more than the sum of the surface inputs.
However, the last entrant is a little different.
The Vegas Golden Knights have been such a strange team this season. By the numbers, they’re one of, if not the most, dominant teams in the NHL but their results have been just okay. The same goes for this line, who have controlled both quality and quantity to an absurd degree this season but are barely hovering above even in goals for.
Of all the top lines across the league, the Golden Knights’ best line owns the largest negative gap between expected goals and actual goals, controlling just 51.6 per cent of the goals while they’re on the ice, even though the efforts they put forth should earn them 62.7 per cent of them.
The puck hasn’t bounced that well for this line so far this season, but they’re one of the most terrifying lines to match up against in the league, and with how consistently strong they’ve been, you have to wonder if everything will work itself out in the second half, or if they’ll storm into the playoffs and blow someone out of the water completely?
Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty are having fine offensive seasons, but it’s Paul Stastny that hasn’t produced as much as the underlying numbers would suggest. As great as they look, they could be producing a whole lot more. That’s a scary thought for opponents.