It’s a debate that is as ambiguous as it is intriguing; who is the best line in the NHL?
Sure, discussions over who’s the best player in the league are fun, but as we have seen countless times in NHL history, a great player can only take his team as far as the supporting staff around him will allow. A great top line can make any team a threat, and there’s no doubt why fans around the league like to boast that their top line is the best.
A great first line needs to have a sense of balance; You need size and speed to go along with dynamic scoring ability. A great first line not only strikes fear into the hearts of opposing players, but is also able to fight through any match-up pitted against them and remain consistently successful.
There are many great lines around the league, and fans in San Jose, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Tampa Bay, and others may disgree, but it seems that three units currently stand above the rest, and are performing at an extremely high level right now.
Let’s begin in Anaheim, where Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and old running mate Dustin Penner have combined to form one of the most potent trios in the NHL. The three have not only been the most consistent on the Ducks in terms of time played together, but also the most consistent on the scoresheet.
It starts with captain Getzlaf who, with 13 goals and 30 points in 25 games so far, is on pace for new career highs in both categories, despite missing a few games to injury earlier this month.
While long-time partner Perry isn’t quite up to his lofty 2010-11 Rocket Richard/Hart Trophy standards, he’s been no slouch either with 14 goals and 14 assists on the year.
Penner however has been somewhat of a surprise. Signed as a free agent this past offseason after this time in Los Angeles fizzled out, people weren’t quite sure what to expect of the hulking winger. His 9 goals and 20 points this year are already his best output since the 2010-11 season (which he split between LA and Edmonton) and he’s also on pace for new career highs.
Combined, the line has racked up 36 goals, 78 points and an outstanding plus-43 rating. Both Getzlaf and Perry are top 10 in league scoring, while Penner leads the NHL in plus/minus.
For the sake of this article, I don’t think we can count out top power play units, because what Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz and James Neal have been doing in Pittsburgh for the Penguins this season has been pretty special.
Crosby is, as I’m sure you all know, leading the NHL in overall points with 36 (a 109-point pace) and he’s second in the league for power play points with 14.
Right there beside him is Malkin with 14 power play points of his own, which represents nearly half of his output this season. Kunitz is leading the Penguins and is third in the league with five power play goals while Neal has been chipping in with seven points of his own.
While those four rarely play with each other at even-strength (Crosby and Kunitz occupy the first line in Pittsburgh while Malkin and Neal play together on line two) there is no denying the dominance those four have when out on the first unit power play together. At 24.5%, they are absolutely deadly with the man-advantage.
However, for all that Perry, Getzlaf and Penner have done five-on-five and all that Pittsburgh’s top snipers have done on special teams, neither compare to the show being put on in St. Louis so far this year.
Yes, David Backes, Alex Steen and T.J. Oshie of the Blues are my pick for the top line in hockey right now.
What the 29-year-old Steen has been doing this year is simply magical. He’s tied with Alex Ovechkin for the league lead in goals with 20, a number only four away from tying his career high. However, he’s been much more efficient than Ovechkin in finding the back of the net, as Steen has accomplished that total with only 84 shots on goal (a 23.8% shooting accuracy) compared to Ovechkin’s 131 shots on goal.
Some say (myself included) that’s unsustainable, but the longer Steen continues to score the more it’s looking like excellent efficiency and shot selection. In essence, Steen doesn’t shoot unless he thinks he can score.
If Steen is the sniper on the top line in St. Louis, team captain Backes is undoubtedly the grit and heart of the line. With 12 goals and 25 points Backes is, as you would expect, on pace for new career highs, but his play is worth much more than what shows up on his statline.
Backes is, to put it mildly, a beast of a player. Standing at 6-foot-3 and over 220 pounds, he’s a force on the ice and isn’t afraid to go hard after the opposing team’s players, as evidenced by his 52 penalty minutes and 78 hits so far this year. He leads the team by example and provides all the grit and leadership you could hope for from your captain.
For his part, Oshie is emerging as not only a valuable complimentary piece, but also a very good playmaker in his own right. The somewhat diminutive winger has 18 assists through 25 games and looks to be on pace for new career highs in both assists and points.
Together the group has a combined 36 goals, 78 points and a plus-35 rating, which is on pace with what the top line in Anaheim has accomplished. Unlike Anaheim however, the Blue’s trio has been able to get it done both five-on-five and on special teams, where St. Louis leads the NHL with a 24.7% power play conversion rate, thanks in large part to Backes, Steen and Oshie.
The line seems to be working the sniper/playmaker/power forward prototype to perfection, harkening back to the days when Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison of the Canucks where the most dangerous trio back in the early 2000’s. There’s all kinds of size, speed, and scoring ability on the top line in St. Louis that is unmatched anywhere in the NHL. They are simply the best line in hockey, right now.
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