With the resurgence of Canadian NHL teams this season, there’s a possibility five of the seven could make the playoffs. In the Atlantic, the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, and Toronto Maple Leafs are first, second, and third in the division, which could make for an entirely Canadian representation come playoff time.
The drastic change from last season’s hapless Canadian teams made me wonder, which team has the best top line? Part of answering that includes figuring out which line on each team is the so-called top line, but I’m a stickler for going with the coach on that label, so I believe the line that gets the most ice time at even strength is the top line.
That simple determining factor helps clear up a bit of a confusing situation in Toronto, where the three top lines get fairly balanced scoring, but are used in wildly different ways. There’s an argument to be made that the Nazem Kadri line is the most trusted, but Auston Matthews consistently gets the most ice.
In constructing top lines for each team it should be noted that I’m not looking at which team can assemble the best line, but which team has the best top line that is currently being used. For Montreal, that means Phillip Danault is the centre, not Alex Galchenyuk, and in Toronto Connor Brown is on Matthews’ wing and not William Nylander.
With that in mind, here are the top lines for all seven Canadian teams:
Montreal Canadiens: Max Pacioretty – Phillip Danault – Alexander Radulov
Toronto Maple Leafs: Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – Connor Brown
Ottawa Senators: Zack Smith – Derick Brassard – Mark Stone
Winnipeg Jets: Nikolaj Ehlers – Mark Scheifele – Patrik Laine
Edmonton Oilers: Patrick Maroon – Connor McDavid – Leon Draisaitl
Calgary Flames: Johnny Gaudreau – Sean Monahan – Troy Brouwer
Vancouver Canucks: Daniel Sedin – Henrik Sedin – Loui Eriksson
Because forwards are mostly responsible for transition and offence, I’m going to ignore defensive play for now, at least in isolation, and start by looking at the percentages behind each line’s play relative to their teammates. Turnover rates are inverted as usual so that positive numbers are good and negative numbers are bad.
One thing that’s important to note is the Canadiens’ top line is at a bit of a disadvantage due to the team having multiple very strong lines in terms of Corsi and goals for, but they still rank very positively until you get to turnovers and pass success rates, where you see they’re the sloppiest top line in terms of puck management.
The Leafs’ top line is extremely impressive in terms of goals, but they’re struggling in terms of possession with Connor Brown on the right side after dominating with William Nylander there earlier in the year. The Jets are in a similar situation, dominating goals but not possession, and turning the puck over more than average.
The Senators’ top line has the greatest relative Corsi, while the Flames’ has the greatest impact on goals relative to team — markers of success and symptoms of weakness when they’re not on the ice.
I was slightly surprised by how strong the Sedin line in Vancouver still is, as they have the lowest turnover rate of all these top lines, the highest pass success rate, and extremely impressive relative possession and goals.
Perhaps most interesting, though, is how the Oilers’ top line is on the positive side of the ledger in all four categories here, with two young players and an unheralded net-front man combining for very few turnovers and failed passes.
Results are all well and good, but we have to also look at process, specifically which lines are producing the most offence. For this, I felt it was more important to look at pure rate statistics instead of relative ones; we want to see which lines are actually producing big time offence regardless of what their teammates might do.
It’s important to note here that we’re not looking at on-ice offence, we’re looking at the offence produced specifically by the forwards, so defensive involvement in terms of shot attempts is not a part of this discussion.
Hilariously, the random order I chose for the teams organized itself into a descending order of shot attempts, which wasn’t on purpose.
The Canadiens are the best shot volume team, which shouldn’t be that surprising considering they’re easily the best Canadian team this year in terms of shot attempt differential and their biggest possession driver at forward has been Max Pacioretty. They produce the third-most inner slot scoring chances, as well, but only the fifth-most total scoring chances and scoring chances on net. Combined with their turnover rates, I think it’s safe to say that while they’re a good top line, they aren’t Canada’s best.
The Maple Leafs make up for their lack of possession dominance with incredible skill, leading in every scoring chance category and shots on net, while ranking second in total shot attempts. That would make them a contender for the best line, but one problem is Hyman’s finishing ability. Matthews has set Hyman up for the second-most inner slot scoring chances at even strength in the NHL this year, which comes with an expected 22.8 shooting percentage, but he has one of the lowest conversion rates in the league. That lack of finish severely holds this line back.
While the Senators look strong in terms of overall shots, they are tied with Vancouver for the lowest shot quality of the top lines. Vancouver is also the lowest in terms of shot attempts, meaning they’re producing the least offence out of every line here, which takes them out of the running.
The Jets’ top line have been excellent finishers this year, but in terms of offensive chances produced they’re a little underwhelming to me. They’re getting better as the season goes on and as Laine adjusts to the NHL game, but if we’re talking about who is best this year, I don’t think the process behind their results is strong enough to make that case.
The Flames make a decent case in terms of scoring chances on net and overall, but they’re far behind the leaders in terms of those high danger, inner slot chances that really drive offensive success. They’re a line that’s also improving as Johnny Gaudreau shakes off his early-season struggles, but they’re not at the top.
Probably not surprisingly, my pick for the best Canadian team first line this season falls to the Oilers, where Connor McDavid is simply too big of a difference maker not to be the best. The Oilers have the second-best shot quality among these top lines, just behind Toronto, but they also dominate possession, don’t turn the puck over, and all three players on the line can finish.
McDavid operates like a machine. Not only does he create more offence than almost anyone in the league, he does so without being a defensive risk, which is nearly impossible in today’s game. His precision seems to rub off on his teammates, which makes his line almost impossible to match up against. He is such a difference maker on his own that the Oilers are competitive despite their continued lack of depth at seemingly all positions.