One line doesn’t make a Stanley Cup champion — but it certainly doesn’t hurt. We debate the top trios league-wide:
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Back in October, I ranked the top 20 lines in the NHL, with the top units for Colorado and Boston taking the top spots. But it’s the fourth-ranked unit on that list that I think could actually be the best in the league — when its healthy, that is. And that line consists of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson of the Nashville Predators.
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This line hasn’t played much together this season due to injuries, but in 17 games, they’ve gotten 60.32 percent of the scoring chances at 5-on-5 and have outscored their opponents 15-11. Taken as a two-season sample, their line has a plus-22 in goal differential, a stellar 64.86 percent goals for percentage, gets 57.4 percent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5 and has an on-ice shooting percentage of 10.79 at even strength. Outside of goal differential, they’re putting up numbers that are better or just as good as the Nathan MacKinnon line from 2017-19.
Forsberg is a dynamic offensive player. Arvidsson is a 30-plus goal scorer. Johansen is the glue, as a solid playmaker and a dependable two-way player. They’re as much the engine for the Predators as any other top line is for their respective teams, and they’re a ton of fun to watch in the regular season and the postseason, where they have a 68.75 goals-for percentage at 5-on-5 in 41 games together, with a plus-12 goal differential.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: We can debate the merits of All-Star roster construction later, but it’s noteworthy that only one team is sending an entire line to San Jose. The Avalanche boast the best trio in hockey with Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog.
Rantanen (68 points, trailing only Nikita Kucherov for the league lead) and MacKinnon (66 points) rank top five in league scoring; Landeskog is fifth in the league with 27 goals. This line has been sizzling since last season, but their domination has become pronounced because of consistency, totally independent of the team’s performance. As a team, the Avalanche are floundering. Since Dec. 8, they have gone 3-10-3; no team has a worse record in that span. And yet Landeskog, Rantanen and MacKinnon are each averaging more than a point per game in that stretch (a combined 61 points in those 16 games). They’re doing this all with a suspect supporting cast.
If Colorado makes the playoffs this season, it’s because these three willed them there.
Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: This is a tricky question because you can approach it from two different angles. On the one hand, you don’t want to be a prisoner of the moment by being reactionary about a recent hot stretch. The king stays the king, and the most singularly dominant line in hockey in recent seasons has been the Bruins’ combination of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand.
The Lightning and Leafs maintain the top spots, with big movers elsewhere. Plus, which teams will finish above or below their current pace?
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When they’re on top of their game, what makes them special above all else is the way they seemingly suck the life out of opponents, playing a game of keep away like a big brother tormenting his younger siblings. If you had to pick one line for a playoff series, they’d probably be the right pick, because they’ve been that good for that long. The issue is that at this moment, it’s unfair to the others to say that they’ve been the best when the results aren’t there this season. Because of injuries, they’ve played south of 300 5-on-5 minutes together, and because of surprisingly subpar goaltending, they’ve only outscored opponents by a miniscule 17-15 margin in those minutes.
But if we’re going to look at recent performance and reward accordingly, let’s give some love to the Calgary Flames‘ top line. With the trio of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm on the ice, the Flames have been stupendously good. In 525:39 of 5-on-5 time, they’ve outscored opponents by a whopping 38-22 margin. Beyond that, they’ve asserted their dominance by putting the clamps down on whoever happens to be out there against them; they’ve controlled 56.4 percent of the shot attempts, 54.6 percent of the shots on goal, and 55.3 percent of the scoring chances.
Most importantly, they’re the driving force behind a Flames team that currently sits atop not only the Pacific Division, but the entire Western Conference. At this point, what else could they do to turn any remaining skeptics into believers? They’ve already been doing it all.
Victoria Matiash, fantasy analyst: Now that Zach Hyman is healthy, I’ll take the Maple Leafs’ top line over all others in the here and now. Along with talent and skill, there’s no overstating the value in great chemistry. The combination of Mitch Marner‘s exceptional playmaking, Hyman’s ability to create time and space, and all that John Tavares does well — which is essentially everything — blends brilliantly.
In only 34 games together, this trio has meshed for a 64.29 percent goals for percentage at 5-on-5. They’re already a combined plus-50. Often matched up against the opposition’s toughest competition, Tavares will likely finish with 50 goals for the first time in his career (he’s never reached 40). Marner is on pace to bust through 100 points at only 21 years old. Without putting up anywhere near such numbers himself, Hyman helps make it all happen. They’re stealing ice time away from Auston Matthews‘ line, for crying out loud. That’s no accident.
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As a fun aside, this trio also presents as one of the league’s top bargains, adding up to just a bit more than $14 million in annual salary (with $11 million paid out to Tavares alone). That all changes when Marner cashes in large as a restricted free agent this offseason; but for now, there’s no greater bang for buck. In fact, what they’re offering the Leafs right now — a legit chance at beating Boston and maybe Tampa Bay in the postseason — is priceless.
Ben Arledge, associate NHL editor: You can’t go wrong with the top Colorado or Toronto or Tampa Bay units, but the Winnipeg Jets‘ trio of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor is the best line in the NHL in my opinion. Wheeler and Scheifele both rank in the top 10 in points, and Connor has 16 goals.
Perhaps the wildest thing about this is that Winnipeg’s best player, Patrik Laine, doesn’t even skate with them, yet they still have an absurd 65.3 Corsi for percentage together, according to Natural Stat Trick. Wheeler and Scheifele continue to be some of the most underappreciated stars in the NHL, and Connor’s 31-goal rookie campaign was overshadowed by ridiculous seasons by Mathew Barzal and Brock Boeser. This line is just stacked with talent. And for my money, it is the best in the league.