Ranking the NHL’s top forward lines, defence pairs and goalies this season

The Hockey Central Panel takes a look at the 7-3 Toronto Maple Leafs win over the Ottawa Senators and examines if after these three games, it's realistic for Auston Matthews to score 50 goals in 50 games.

A little over five weeks into the season, most teams have played between 15-20 games so we thought we’d take a look at the lines, defence pairings and goalies who have performed best so far this season.

With an emphasis on time-on-ice, expected goals for percentage and goals for versus against, we’ll rank the top-3 in each category.

Let’s start with the forwards.

No. 3: Clayton Keller-Nick Schmaltz-Conor Garland

The Arizona Coyotes more than survived a seven-game set against the St. Louis Blues, winning four games against the top team in the West Division. Arizona currently sits fourth in the division and has benefitted from terrific play from its newly formed top line.

Keller, Schmaltz and Garland spent a bit of time together over a four-game stretch in November 2019 and performed well. The line was reunited earlier this season and picked up right where they left off. In just under 100 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time, this line has outscored its opponents 9-2 and has an expected goals for percentage of 70.7 per cent. That’s dominant play from the kids in the desert.

No. 2: Joe Thornton-Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner

This spot really goes to Matthews, Marner and whoever slots in with them — these two have destroyed the competition all season.

Since Thornton is currently on the line, we’ll go with this trio, but Zach Hyman has been just as good in the minutes he’s played with Matthews and Marner.

In 85 minutes together at 5-on-5, Thornton, Matthews and Marner have outscored the opposition 7-1 and own a 61.2 per cent share of the expected goals. The chemistry between Matthews and Marner has been evident for years, but since returning from injury, Thornton has fit like a glove with his young linemates.

Matthews leads the league in goals with 16 and even-strength goals with 11. Marner is second only to Connor McDavid in assists. They may be the most dangerous offensive duo in the NHL right now.

Hyman has actually spent more time with Matthews and Marner than Thornton, and the Leafs have outscored their opponents 12-4 in those minutes. The way Matthews and Marner are going right now it doesn’t seem to matter who plays with them — the line is going to produce.

No. 1. Max Pacioretty-Chandler Stephenson-Mark Stone

The top performing line in the NHL to this point of the season is the No. 1 line in Vegas.

The Pacioretty-Stephenson-Stone trio has been on for more goals at 5-on-5 than any line, 13, and is tied for the best goal differential at plus-8. This line has all the elements needed to be a force on the ice. Pacioretty ranks 10th in even-strength goals with six and has one of the most lethal shots in the NHL.

Stephenson can flat out fly and Stone remains one of the best all-around forwards in the game. The Golden Knights are an up-tempo team and this line plays as fast as any in the NHL.

BEST DEFENCE PAIRS

No. 3. Victor Hedman-Jan Rutta

Hedman is so good there’s a chance his pairing would crack our top three no matter who he plays with. The 2018 Norris Trophy winner is having another outstanding season for the Tampa Bay Lightning, tied for second in defencemen scoring with 15 points in 14 games.

Rutta has proven to be a nice complement to Hedman as the pair has posted an impressive 62.8 per cent of expected goals while on the ice in nearly 150 minutes of 5-on-5 play. The actual goals for and against are even at six a piece, but this duo has still been one of the best in the league and odds are that differential will start tipping into positive numbers before long.

No. 2. Joel Edmundson-Jeff Petry

The Montreal Canadiens haven’t played in a week, but are back on the ice Saturday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada. This duo will be tasked with trying to slow down a Leafs team that is seemingly filling the net with ease.

So far this season, Edmundson and Petry have done a great job of defending and also pitching in offensively. The latter mainly coming from Petry who is tied with Hedman for second in scoring among defencemen with 15 points.

Petry has been active in the rush this season, ranking top three among defencemen in rush scoring chances on a Canadiens team that has scored more off the rush than any team. This pairing eats big minutes, playing over 200 minutes together at 5-on-5 this season and posting an expected goals for percentage of 59.3 per cent. Edmundson and Petry have been on the ice for 12 goals for and four against — their plus-8 goal differential is the best of any defence pair in the NHL.

No. 1. Torey Krug-Justin Faulk

A couple of offensive defencemen have teamed up to play 161:44 together at 5-on-5 and only allow three goals against. Not bad for the Blues’ most-used defence pair.

Krug and Faulk didn’t allow a single goal against in their first 100 minutes together this season and have a dominant goals for percentage (10 for, three against). Their expected goals for percentage of 59.7 confirms that they are driving play effectively for the 10-5-2 Blues. Krug is an excellent puck mover who can make plays in the offensive zone, while Faulk is an under-appreciate puck mover who brings a physical element and a big shot to the top pairing.

The Blues have long been one of the top defensive teams in the NHL and many wondered how much the loss of All-Star defenceman Alex Pietrangelo might hurt the team in that area. So far, this newly formed top pairing has stepped up and shown they can be counted on to deliver not only offensively, but defensively as well.

BEST GOALIES

No. 3. Marc-Andre Fleury

After a down season last year, Fleury has been brilliant in the net for the Vegas Golden Knights through nine games this season. Among goalies with at least five starts, Fleury ranks second in save percentage (.937) and first in goals-against average (1.56).

While those numbers have been helped by playing behind a strong defensive team, Fleury still ranks fourth in goals saved above expected per 60 minutes with a 0.58 mark. The Golden Knights have the best points percentage in the West Division and Fleury is a big reason why.

No. 2. Kevin Lankinen

Is there a better rookie story this season than Lankinen? The Blackhawks were supposed to be at the bottom of the Central Division, but thanks in large part to the 25-year old rookie, the Hawks sit fifth in points percentage. Lankinen was projected to be the team’s third string goalie at the start of the season, but quickly won the net with his brilliant play.

Lankinen is 7-3-3 with a 2.43 GAA and .927 save percentage, which is even more impressive when you consider the type of shots he faces. In his starts, the Blackhawks’ expected goals against average (reflection of team defence) is 3.00, which ranks 42nd out of 51 qualified goalies. Lankinen saves his team an average of over half a goal per-game (0.57) which ranks sixth in the league.

No. 1. Andrei Vasilevskiy

The 2019 Vezina Trophy winner is the leading candidate to win the award in 2021. Vasilevskiy has won nine of his 12 starts and ranks second in goals-against average and save percentage among goalies with at least 10 games played.

Vasilevskiy has saved 7.68 goals above expected this season, which ranks first in the NHL. At a per-60 rate, he ranks third. Yes, Vasilevskiy plays behind arguably the best team in the NHL, however, the Lightning give up their fair share of scoring chances.

In the games Vasilevskiy has played, the expected goals against sit at 2.47, 19th out of 46 qualified goalies. Philipp Grubauer, Marc-Andre Fleury and Semyon Varlamov are just some of the other goalies with elite numbers who have faced easier workloads.

It is possible to be the best goalie in the world on a top team and still save your team a lot of goals. That’s what Vasilevskiy continues to do in Tampa Bay.

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