Look around the NHL and you’ll see no shortage of excellent top lines. Boston’s trio of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak took up the mantle as the league’s best last season and are right in that conversation again now. Colorado (Gabriel Landeskog-Nathan MacKinnon-Mikko Rantanen) has an elite top unit itself, while Calgary, Nashville and Winnipeg are getting most of their offence from elite top lines.
When the Dallas Stars are fully healthy and clicking they put out a line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov that would rank right up near the top of the league. Radulov has missed some time (and is unlikely to play in Toronto Thursday) and as Seguin and Benn have struggled a bit recently, the two have been split up.
When those three are together, the question around the Stars is whether or not they have the depth scoring to keep up. But the thing is, that’s not an unusual critique for many teams around the league.
“It’s a little bit of the side effects of the cap,” Stars GM Jim Nill told Hockey Central at Noon on Thursday. “You only get so much money, you have to spread it around the right way, and you’re going to commit to four, five, six guys big money and then you have to fill around the edges and that’s the fine balancing act.
“It’s the way you build your teams now. It’s a balance — you gotta have the right depth and those big guys, if they don’t play…we’re going through that a little bit right now. Jamie Benn hasn’t scored in seven games and Tyler Seguin hasn’t scored in eight games. We’re lucky enough our depth scoring has stepped up to keep our head above water so we’re surviving. But I know if that keeps up over 20 games, if that continues to happen, we’ll have troubles. That’s every team. I watched Boston play Montreal, Bergeron’s line didn’t score, they lost 3-0. That’s kinda the game now.”
Some teams are lucky in that their productive top lines aren’t making a ton of money against the cap. This can be for a variety of reasons. Winnipeg, for example, isn’t among the most expensive top lines because Mark Scheifele is on one of the best contracts in the league ($6.125 million cap hit) and Blake Wheeler’s $8.25 million extension doesn’t kick in until next season. Carolina’s very productive top unit won’t appear because its best player, Sebastian Aho, is still on his entry-level contract.
When Dallas’s big three are together, their combined $21.5 million cap hit makes them the highest-paid trio in the league. But Radulov is out and Benn has been used on the second line a bit recently, so they don’t make the cut for now.
Here’s a look at the NHL’s five highest-paid top lines.
Jeff Skinner – Jack Eichel – Jason Pominville: $21.325 million
This line hasn’t been together since Day 1, but since being united they’ve been very productive for the Sabres.
Eichel’s $10 million cap hit accounts for nearly half of this total, but both of his wingers still come in above $5.5 million against the cap. After a slow start, Skinner has excelled with five goals and 10 points in his past six games, which actually leads this line over that time. Eichel is fairly regularly playing more than 20 minutes a night and Pominville, playing in his 1,000th career game Thursday, is already nearly one-third of the way to his point total from all of last season.
The Sabres, like many, are trying to figure out a way to get more secondary scoring — and that means getting rookie Casey Mittelstadt going — but at least they can count on the most expensive top line in hockey to produce.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Connor McDavid – Drake Caggiula: $20 million
McDavid’s $12.5 million cap hit means he’ll probably always be on one of the league’s most expensive lines.
Obviously McDavid is the straw that stirs the drink in Edmonton as he has points on 18 of the Oilers’ 32 goals. But Nugent-Hopkins deserves credit for his transition from centre to the wing when Edmonton really needed to find at least one permanent winger to play with their superstar. Since joining McDavid last season, RNH has been scoring at a level he never previously got to in his career.
The third piece has been interchangeable this season. The right side on this line belonged to Ty Rattie before he went down to an injury that will keep him out for weeks, and rookie Kailer Yamamoto was given an opportunity, but had little success on the scoresheet. Caggiula is the latest to get a try on McDavid’s wing — he went pointless Tuesday against Minnesota.
Until someone starts putting up regular numbers here this will remain a game of musical chairs. With the team needing to find Jesse Puljujarvi a spot and get some momentum going for him, it seems only a matter of time before it’ll be his turn. Either way, this will remain one of hockey’s most expensive lines.
Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak: $19.66 million
The great news with this line is that not only are none of the players on hugely expensive contracts (Bergeron at $6.875 million has the highest cap hit), but they’re all signed through at least the 2021-22 season.
Each of these players is scoring at more than a point-per-game pace right now and they bring their own individual styles. Bergeron the strong two-way presence that everything goes through, Marchand the disturber and all-purpose presence, and Pastrnak the sniper. They complement each other so well.
This trio has combined to score 22 goals and the rest of the Bruins lineup has contributed just 15. Depth for sure is a concern for the Bruins, which may make them players for someone like Artemi Panarin on the trade market eventually, but when you have the best line in hockey today you’re ahead of the game.
Zach Parise – Mikko Koivu – Mikael Granlund: $18.788 million
With a new GM and a team that’s been spinning its wheels for a while, the Wild seemed like a prime candidate for some significant changes this year. But now, off to a glowing 7-3-2 start in which they’re the only team remaining without a regulation loss at home, perhaps these Wild can go on relatively untouched.
Devan Dubnyk has undoubtedly been the team’s MVP so far, but few saw this top line being as strong out of the gate as it has. Specifically, Parise and his $7.538 million cap hit had become a real problem for the team because he’s now 34 years old, had declining point totals three years in a row, and has a contract commitment through 2024-25.
Now going at a point per game pace, though, Parise is one of the great early stories of this season. The 11.4 shooting percentage he has is right on his career average so it’s not wholly unsustainable. Remaining healthy is the biggest challenge.
Koivu, meantime, won’t put up monster point totals but is a beast on defence. The 26-year-old Mikael Granlund hasn’t hit an elite 70-point mark yet, but he’s been close and his point per game numbers have been rising the past two years.
J.T. Miller – Steven Stamkos – Nikita Kucherov: $18.516 million
The whole equation will change next year when Kucherov starts earning $9.5 million against the cap (up from $4.76 million), and it’s already among the most expensive.
The interesting thing about this line is that, for now at least, you could even make the case it’s the second-best line in Tampa Bay. With Brayden Point starting to cement himself as an elite centre in the league, flanked by Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson — who both have more points than Stamkos — that much cheaper line is providing just as much offence.
Stamkos only has two goals so far this season, but once he gets going the Lightning could have two first lines. They’re already scary enough with one.