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July 18, 2019
Line It Up
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
Not long ago, Steve Dubinsky, Aaron Voros, and Nikolai Zherdev were the best line in hockey. The trio combined for eight goals and 19 points in the season’s first five games, leading the New York Rangers to a perfect 5-0-0 start.
Now, with Christmas fast approaching, Dubinsky, Voros, and Zherdev are, well, not the best line in hockey. While Zherdev leads the Blueshirts in scoring with 30 points and has moved on to find success with Scott Gomez and Markus Naslund, Dubinsky and Voros have hit the skids, combining for seven goals and 17 points in New York’s last 27 games.
Such is life in today’s NHL. Thanks to expansion and the salary cap, teams rarely have three good offensive players let alone three on the same line. And with the standings a jumbled mess, coaches are quick to bust up lines the moment they fail to produce.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have the top two scorers in hockey in Kid Crosby and Geno Malkin, but neither one has steady, dependable linemates. Crosby spends much of his time toiling between Miroslav Satan and the likes of Pascal Dupuis or Max Talbot. Malkin has a regular wingman in Petr Sykora, but the left side is hardly set in stone, with Ruslan Fedotenko in and out of coach Michel Therrien’s doghouse. Truth be told, Pittsburgh’s best line this season has been Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke, and Tyler Kennedy.
The Vancouver Canucks had some magic working with the Sedin twins and Pavol Demitra, but the right wing is once again a revolving door, with Jannik Hansen the most recent lottery winner.
The Chicago Blackhawks have the pieces to put together a swell top line with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Patrick Sharp, but they typically only see time together on the power play.
So what are the best lines in hockey at the moment? Here are my top five…
Ovechkin and Backstrom started the season with Viktor Kozlov, while Semin opened on a line with Sergei Fedorov and Brooks Laich. They weren’t put together on a regular basis until the third period of Washington’s 3-2 victory over Carolina on November 6. Semin potted a pair in the final three minutes to steal the win, and Bruce Boudreau recognized a good thing when he saw it. Unfortunately, the threesome lasted only four games before Semin was forced out with a bad back.
Healthy once more, Semin has been reunited with Backstrom and Ovechkin, and it’s tough to argue with the results. The Caps are 8-0-0 with the threesome skating together. In those eight games, the talented triumvirate has combined for 15 goals and 43 points. That’s quality.
But it’s not all puppet shows and candy canes. All three are suspect defensively, and Backstrom is winning only 48.8 percent of his draws. They could be had in their own zone. But who’s going to outscore them?
Mike Babcock likes to mix and match his forwards, otherwise he could roll with Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and that creep Marian Hossa. If those three skated together for any length of time, they’d be the undisputed champs.
Savard is the ideal playmaking pivot, having posted three consecutive 60-assist campaigns, and he’s well on his way to a fourth with 26 helpers in his first 30 contests.
With Savard’s slick passing setting the table, Kessel has emerged as a true game-breaker, using his speed and creativity to bag 19 goals. Kessel has lit the lamp in 11 of his past 13 outings and is currently riding a 15-game point streak (12-10-22).
“I don't think I'm doing anything that different,” explained Kessel in a recent media conference call. “I think it has a lot to do with my linemates and my teammates. They're finding me in good situations. I think playing with Milan and Savard, they give you good passes. Whenever you're open, they're going to find you. I think we've got good chemistry going on the line right now.”
Lucic brings the muscle, dominating the boards and busting skulls. The hulking 20-year-old has nine goals and 20 points to go along with 58 penalty minutes, the second-highest total on the team, and he leads the league with 117 hits. Without Lucic around to provide protection for his diminutive linemates, Savard and Kessel would no doubt find it tough sledding.
The line loses out, though, on experience. When the games get tight come playoff time, I’m not sure I’d trust Savard and two kids to make plays against the other team’s best line.
Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, and Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa Senators: Recently reunited, Spezza, Heatley, and Alfredsson can still dominate games on occasion. Just ask the Penguins, who were victimized for a Spezza hat trick in a recent 3-2 loss. But Ottawa’s top unit is no longer the feared assemblage it once was. Alfredsson is starting to slow, and Spezza is all oatmeal north of the eyebrows.
How does Spezza have only 10 assists in 28 games? Then again, Columbo isn’t really needed to crack that mystery. Craig Janney thinks Spezza is soft.
Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, and Mike Knuble, Philadelphia Flyers: Richards is a modern day Ron Francis, only meaner. Gagne is the speedy goal-scorer, and Knuble provides a big body in front of the net. Philly's second line isn't too shabby either, with Jeff Carter, Joffrey Lupul, and the loathsome Scott Hartnell.