There is a difference between "most valuable" and "best." The top lines for the Penguins, Bruins, Blackhawks and Flyers are generally considered to be the NHL's best for their consistency and overall skill. But because of the depth of their respective teams, those lines don't always have to carry the lion's share of the offensive burden. In Pittsburgh, for example, the No. 1 line of center Evgeni Malkin and wingers James Neal and Steve Sullivan has scored 21 even-strength goals—28.8% of the club's total offensive production. But so too have the nominal second-liners, center Jordan Staal and wingers Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. (Staal has been filling in during Sidney Crosby's absence.)
The Penguins, then, own two of the best scoring lines in the game, but the most valuable line in hockey today belongs to the Panthers. With 25 of Florida's 59 even-strength goals, center Stephen Weiss and wingers Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg have accounted for a whopping 42.4% of the Panthers' five-on-five offense. The trio's scoring punch has been enough to keep Florida (18-9-6) near the top of the Eastern Conference. Ditto for the Maple Leafs' top line—wingers Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, who have been centered most often by Tyler Bozak and Tim Connolly—which has scored 29 of the club's 69 even-strength goals, or 42.0%. After a hot start Toronto (16-13-3) has cooled off and now ranks eighth in the East. The Blues' top line is scoring at a 38.2% clip. (St. Louis ranks fourth in the West.) Like Pittsburgh, most teams rely on their top line for about a third of their offense, but the Panthers, Leafs and Blues have been getting much more.
Having a dominant line can be a double-edged sword. It can make up for a lack of scoring depth, but for how long? If the line slumps, the team is likely to do the same. Florida coach Kevin Dineen admits that he has been tempted to split up his top line in an effort to bring scoring equilibrium to his club. "[That's the discussion] in our coaches' office every day," he laughs. "But I think when you find a special chemistry, as a coach, you're maybe doing a little too much thinking if you break [that] up."
IMBALANCE OF POWER
The top lines in St. Louis, Florida and Toronto score a disproportionate number of their team's even-strength goals.
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
Tomas Fleischmann Stephen Weiss
Tyler Bozak Joffrey Lupul
Alexander Steen David Backes T.J. Oshie
League Average: 35%
ELIOT J. SCHECHTER/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (VERSTEEG)
NICK TURCHIARO/ICON SMI (KESSEL)
BILL STREICHER/ICON SMI (OSHIE)