Now that over a quarter of the season has passed — and we have decent sample sizes to work with – we’ve decided to identify the five best lines in the NHL so far this season. That’s not as easy as it sounds, since there are so many variables that go into what makes a line good.
In fact, after crunching numbers on over 20 different consistently used lines, it was essentially impossible to pick just five. So, we get a top six.
In order to be considered, a trio of three players has to have played at least 100 minutes together at even strength this season and they have to be a scoring line that plays reasonably tough minutes — not a talented but sheltered third or fourth line getting great results against less-talented third and fourth lines. We’re looking for the best of the best here.
Without numbering the lines — but according to the data — here are the six best lines so far in the 2019-20 season.
The Hurricanes have long been analytics darlings, but their top line is the gold standard on a team that dominates play better than most at 5-on-5. They’ve been pretty fortunate this season in the goal category, with a whopping 80 per cent of the goals scored while they’re on the ice being in their favour, but their other metrics are nothing to sneeze at either.
The Hurricanes usually outperform their shot quality with their shot quantity — and this line is no different — but what they lack in dominance from the inner slot, they make up for with extreme control of slot passes.
Aho’s line isn’t just dominant either, they play easily the highest event hockey on the Hurricanes, giving up the most chances of any Hurricanes line. But they make up for it by pounding teams into the ground with pure volume in every category.
When’s the last time the Vancouver Canucks had one of the best lines in hockey? When’s the last time it had nothing to do with the Sedin twins? The heir apparent to Vancouver’s Swedish top line lynchpins of the Sedins, and Markus Naslund before them, has taken off to the next level this year alongside two talented linemates.
A lot of folks were skeptical of the trade Jim Benning made to acquire J.T. Miller in the off-season, but he has fit like a glove with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser. The Canucks’ top line is lower event than the Hurricanes’ but while the Aho line plays a bit of a dangerous give-and-take game, the Canucks line is remarkably excellent at both ends of the ice.
The Pettersson line gives opponents the fewest good looks of any line on the Canucks by a significant margin and they also lead the team in slot passes and inner slot shots, while dominating shot attempts to a crazy degree.
Like the Canes, they’ve been a bit lucky at a glance when you look at their goal differential, but according to SPORTLOGiQ’s own expected goals model, their 66.7 per cent goals for percentage is not only looking sustainable, it’s actually lower than their expectations, which is 68.3 per cent, the highest mark of any top line in the NHL.
Lost amidst the brutal start to the season that ended up getting Mike Babcock fired has been the absolute dominance of the top line in Toronto. All due respect to John Tavares and Mitch Marner, but between their individual struggles and time missed due to injury, it’s been clear that the Matthews line has been the one the Leafs have relied on more often.
While some lines have been a bit more elegant in their approach to getting things done offensively, the Maple Leafs have struggled a little with getting their passing game going, and defending passes as well, so the Matthews line has used brute force to push the puck to the inner slot constantly.
Even William Nylander, commonly thought of as a perimeter player, is ripping shots from close to the net on a consistent basis. Matthews has always been a dominant player near the net — and Andreas Johnsson is no slouch in that area either — so the offence isn’t surprising, but what is a bit of a shock is that the Matthews line has also been the best defensive line on the Leafs so far this season.
Matthews has received some criticism for giving up on some backchecks this season, but on aggregate no forward on the Maple Leafs is on the ice for fewer high danger chances against than he is this season.
They’re the best line in hockey essentially every year and while some of these lines might fall off a little bit after a hot start, we already know the Bruins’ top line can keep this level of performance up, since they’ve been doing it for multiple seasons now with no hint of stopping.
Defensively the Bergeron line hasn’t looked spectacular compared to the rest of the Bruins’ forward lines so far, but part of the reason why is that they play pretty brutal matchup minutes every night. None of these lines play easy minutes, but the Bergeron line is easily the most specialized one and they manage to dominate despite always getting the toughest matchups.
Their most dominant area of play is controlling slot passes but it’s not actually defending them that they make the biggest impact, it’s creating slot passes for each other. The Bruins take more one-timers at 5-on-5 than any other team in the league and a big reason why is the puck moving ability of this top line, specifically setting up David Pastrnak for his exceptional shot in the high slot.
How’s that strategy working out? Well he only has 24 goals in 26 games. Okay, I guess.
After the Vegas Golden Knights acquired Mark Stone from the Ottawa Senators last season, this line got put together and the results were astonishing. The numbers were so absurd that they looked capable of eclipsing the Bergeron line as the reigning league-best trio, but the repeatability was tough to gauge.
This season, they’ve been about as dominant as expected and have one of the highest expected goals for percentages in the league, nearly 10 per cent higher than what they’ve produced so far.
The secret to this line’s success is not giving up anything defensively and creating a ton of puck movement in the offensive zone where all three players are good finishers.
If the line has one weakness it’s a lack of penetration in the inner slot, where none of the three players naturally go with regularity. Dominating in the high slot with extra pre-shot movement can easily overcome that though.
Last but certainly not least is Sidney Crosby and the guys; the ever-interchangeable wingers that Crosby brings from good to great every single season of his career. That’s probably a little unfair to Jake Guentzel — who is a strong player all on his own — but Crosby is such a dominant player that he regularly seems to be able to take third line guys and make them 50-point wingers or better.
The strength of Crosby’s line lies in his playmaking — he led all players in the NHL in completed slot passes before he went out to get his sports hernia fixed — putting goals on his teammates’ sticks with stunning regularity.
And he’s done it all with a sports hernia. The Penguins have been suffering a multitude of injuries all season long — and seeing the situation early on, Crosby opted to play through his injury and try to carry the Penguins to stability, until he was finally forced to get the surgery in mid-November and sit out for six weeks to fully recover.
Smart? Probably not, you don’t want to risk your franchise player making something worse. But is it impressive? Absolutely. Crosby’s line underperformed expectations in goals, but we don’t expect that to continue once he’s back in the lineup.
Guentzel and Dominik Simon are still one and two in the league in total slot pass receptions, and the trio of players are the only three in the entire NHL to be on the ice for seven or more successful slot passes every 20 minutes of ice time this season.