Breaking down the best lines in the NHL so far this season

For the first time since the 2018–19 season, the Calgary Flames have a legitimate top line. After two seasons of failed line combinations, playing Brett Ritchie in the top-six, and losing a lot of games, the team has finally found a line combination that works for the top line. Putting your three best forwards together yields great results, who would’ve thought? Not Geoff Ward apparently.

Not only is the Flames new look top line their best in three years, it’s also one of the best across the entire NHL. Earlier this week The Athletic took a look at the NHL’s 10 best lines, with the Flames’ trio eighth overall. That said, the list also included multiple lines that haven’t played together once this season or have very limited minutes together, meaning the Flames trio was unfairly ranked behind lines with zero measurable results this season.

Let’s take a look at the best lines in the NHL from this season, based on their overall results and underlying numbers.

All stats are 5v5 score-and-venue-adjusted courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com. Only lines with at least 75 minutes TOI together at 5v5 are considered.

On-ice goals for

First off let’s take a look at the top-10 most productive lines in the NHL this season offensively in terms of their total on-ice goals for as a line. On-ice GF simply measures how many goals for a line has been on the ice together for.

TeamLineOn-ice GF
Washington CapitalsOvechkin – Kuznetsov – Wilson11
Ottawa SenatorsTkachuk – Batherson – Norris10
Philadelphia FlyersFarabee – Brassard – Atkinson9
Edmonton OilersDraisaitl – McDavid – Puljujarvi9
Florida PanthersVerhaeghe – Barkov – Duclair8
Calgary FlamesLindholm – Gaudreau – Tkachuk7
Florida PanthersHuberdeau – Bennett – Tippett7
Toronto Maple LeafsKerfoot – Tavares – Marner7
Vancouver CanucksPearson – Horvat – Garland6
Detroit Red WingsBertuzzi – Larkin – Raymond6

The Washington trio of Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson unsurprisingly leads the way as Ovechkin has had a tremendous start to his 36-year-old season. Ovechkin currently leads the entire NHL in goals with 11, and nine of them came at even strength. Kuznetsov meanwhile is reaping the benefits as he currently sits fifth league wide for points with 16 after a brutal season in 2020–21.

Another interesting line to note is the Ottawa Senators top line of Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, and Josh Norris. After missing his team’s first three games, Tkachuk has returned to the lineup with three goals and six points in nine games all at evens. The line has been a lone bright spot for a struggling Sens team right now.

As well the surprise Red Wings’ new look trio of Tyler Bertuzzi, Dylan Larkin, and Lucas Raymond sits 10th with six goals, fueled by Bertuzzi’s nine goals which ranks tied for third in the NHL, and Raymond’s NHL rookie-best 10 points at even strength.

The Flyers’ second line of Cam Atkinson, Derick Brassard, and Joel Farabee has been dynamite to start the season sitting third league wide with nine goals for, led by Atkinson’s five even strength goals which ranks 17th league wide.

The Flames trio meanwhile slots in at sixth with seven goals, tied with two other lines. The line has gotten off to a blazing start to the year, with Johnny Gaudreau sitting 13th league wide for points, and Elias Lindholm tied for fifth in the NHL with seven goals.

Another Alberta team makes an appearance as well, with the Oilers’ scorched Earth first line sitting fourth in the NHL. The line has been split up a few times this year, but whenever the Oilers need a goal and they put them back together and it’s been paying off.

The fifth Canadian team represented on the list is the Vancouver Canucks with their second line of Tanner Pearson, Bo Horvat, and Conor Garland ranking ninth with six goals for.

The only team to feature two lines in the top 10 for GF is the league best Florida Panthers, as their first line ranks fifth, and their second line ranks seventh.

Expected goals for percentage

Next let’s take a look at the top-10 lines this season in terms of expected goals for percentage. This metric determines the share of the expected goals in their favour when a line is on the ice. A higher xGF% means a line is dominating the chance generation and creating more chances with higher probability of creating goals than the opposing team when on the ice.

Calgary FlamesGaudreau – Lindholm – Tkachuk67.27
Pittsburgh PenguinsZucker – Rodrigues – Kapanen67.20
Boston BruinsMarchand – Bergeron – Pastrnak65.73
Toronto Maple LeafsBunting – Matthews – Nylander64.52
Detroit Red WingsBertuzzi – Larkin – Raymond61.55
LA KingsArvidsson – Kopitar – Brown60.93
Philadelphia FlyersLindblom – Laughton – Van Riemsdyk58.20
Buffalo SabresOlofsson – Thompson – Asplund58.03
Florida PanthersVerhaeghe – Barkov – Duclair57.60
Winnipeg JetsConnor – Dubois – Svechnikov56.03

Right away of course we have to mention how the Flames’ top line is currently holding the number one spot league wide. It’s no surprise either. Under Darryl Sutter the Flames have been an analytical darling this season, with their top line driving the bus. Tkachuk, Lindholm, and Gaudreau currently rank first, third and fourth among Flames forwards for ixG at evens, so it’s no surprise they come out looking so strong when compared against the league’s best.

A couple surprising lines show up on this top-10 as well. In second is the Penguins makeshift second line, featuring some unlikely faces. In particular Evan Rodrigues has filled in for Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby just fine so far, as he has his line second in the NHL for xGF%.

As well the Buffalo Sabres—yes the Buffalo Sabres—even feature a top 10-line for xGF%. The trio of Viktor Olofsson, Tage Thompson, and Rasmus Asplund has been great for the lowly Sabres this season. The line has been temporarily broken up however as Olofsson is currently out with an injury, but they will almost certainly be reunited once he’s back.

Another surprising appearance is the Flyers’ third line who has been dominant so far this season. The trio of Oskar Lindblom, James Van Riemsdyk, and Scott Laughton currently rank one, two, three on the Flyers for xGF%.

We also get our first appearance from the Boston Bruins’ perfection line here. The Bruins have been slow out of the gate, but their deadly trio has still been putting up some elite underlying numbers.

The Jets’ new look top line of Kyle Connor, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Evgeny Svechnikov also appear for the first time. The Jets have dealt with injuries to both Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler but they must be more than pleased with how their makeshift top line has been performing.

It’s no surprise to see a line anchored by Auston Matthews so high, as the Maple Leafs’ top line also ranks high for expected goals percentage.

Goals against per 60 minutes

Shifting to a more defensive metric, goals against per 60 lets us look at which lines are the most effective at preventing opposing teams from scoring goals when they’re on the ice. The metric looks at how many goals against each line allows for every 60 minutes they are on the ice together.

Calgary FlamesGaudreau – Lindholm – Tkachuk0
Pittsburgh PenguinsZucker – Rodrigues – Kapanen0
Philadelphia FlyersLindblom – Laughton – Van Riemsdyk0.54
Florida PanthersVerhaeghe – Barkov – Duclair0.55
Toronto Maple LeafsEngvall – Kampf – Kase0.65
Calgary FlamesColeman – Backlund – Pitlick0.69
Washington CapitalsHagelin – Dowd – Hathaway0.76
Winnipeg JetsConnor – Dubois – Svechnikov1.02
Philadelphia FlyersFarabee – Brassard – Atkinson1.10
Nashville PredatorsTrenin – Sissons – Jeannot1.19

What stands out immediately is that the Flames’ first line and the Penguins’ second line have both not been on the ice for a goal against yet to start the season. What’s even more impressive for the Flames is that their line has played 139 minutes together and the Penguins line has played just 78.5 minutes together, making the Flames’ feat just about twice as difficult.

The Panthers’ top line makes another appearance as they will throughout this post as they’ve been dominant at both ends to start the season. It’s no surprise the Panthers are first in the NHL given how well the team is clicking.

The Flyers, Flames, Predators and Maple Leafs all feature a third line on the list, while the Capitals see their fourth line on the list, showing the value they hold as shutdown matchup lines for their teams. The Flames and Flyers are the only teams to have two lines on the list, which bodes well for their overall goals against metrics if literally half of each team’s forwards have the lowest totals among the whole league.

Corsi for percentage

Now let’s take a look at the top-10 lines so far this season in terms of CF%. Corsi for percentage determines the amount of shot attempt share in their favour a line has when on the ice. A higher CF% means a line is dominating puck possession, and getting more attempts towards the net.

Boston BruinsMarchand – Bergeron – Pastrnak65.71
Florida PanthersVerhaeghe – Barkov – Duclair63.10
LA KingsKempe – Danault – Iafallo62.34
Calgary FlamesGaudreau – Lindholm – Tkachuk61.44
Pittsburgh PenguinsZucker – Rodrigues – Kapanen61.19
Winnipeg JetsStastny – Copp – Ehlers60.97
Toronto Maple LeafsBunting – Matthews – Nylander59.2
Philadelphia FlyersGiroux – Couturier – Konecny58.75
Florida PanthersHuberdeau – Bennett – Tippett57.43
Calgary FlamesColeman – Backlund – Pitlick56.81

You’re gonna be hearing this a lot throughout this post, but once again the Flames’ top line features on a top-10 list, placing fourth for CF% across the league. All three of Gaudreau, Lindholm and Tkachuk rank top-20, with Tkachuk and Lindholm both top-10 for individual CF% among forwards with at least 75 minutes at 5v5.

For the second time the Flames have two lines in the top-10, as their third line just makes the cut in 10th. The league best Panthers also feature two lines, as their first and second lines are currently ranked second and ninth, respectively.

As is typically the case for the past five or so years, the Bruins perfection line is the most dominate possession line in hockey. Even though they haven’t been at their best to start the year, they’re still ranking as the top line in the entire NHL when it comes to possession.

Newly signed defensive specialist Philip Danault is making his mark in Los Angeles immediately as he and the Kings’ second line ranking third in the NHL for CF% alongside two skilled wingers in Adrian Kempe and Alex Iafallo. However Viktor Arvidsson’s injury has bumped Kempe up to the first line for now.

The Winnipeg jets also make another appearance, this time it’s their second line of Paul Stastny, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Andrew Copp ranking sixth. The Jets have dealt with a barrage of injuries up front, however this trio has held down the fort well as the teams second line. Stastny is currently out with an injury however so they have been broken up for now.

The Flyers also get a second line featured in a top-10 ranking, as their fist line of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny ranks seventh. Unsurprisingly, the trio ranks one, two, three among Flyers forwards for CF%.

Corsi for per 60 minutes

Next up let’s take a look at the lines that are generating the most shot attempts per 60 minutes of ice time together. This stat lets us get a deeper and more fair look at which lines are generating the most shot attempts, by ranking them based off the amount they generate per 60 minutes on the ice together.

LA KingsKempe – Danault – Iafallo76.31
Boston BruinsMarchand – Bergeron – Pastrnak74.70
Toronto Maple LeafsBunting – Matthews – Nylander73.43
Vegas Golden KnightsMarchessault – Karlsson – Smith70.65
Florida PanthersVerhaeghe – Barkov – Duclair70.56
Calgary FlamesGaudreau – Lindholm – Tkachuk70.29
LA KingsArvidsson – Kopitar – Brown68.07
Winnipeg JetsStastny – Copp – Ehlers66.73
Philadelphia FlyersGiroux – Couturier – Konecny66.56
Winnipeg JetsConnor – Dubois – Svechnikov64.56

Oh look, there’s the Flames top line showing up again. The Flames trio are among the very best at dominating the scoring chances battle every night, so it’s no surprise their per 60 rate is among the best in the league. In particular Tkachuk ranks second league wide among forwards for CF/60, while Gaudreau ranks sixth and Lindholm ranks 23rd. Along with the Bruins’ second line of Taylor Hall, Charlie Coyle, and Craig Smith, they’re the only other line in the NHL to feature their entire line in the top-25 for individual CF/60.

By now we are seeing some clear recurring trends. Once again the Flames, Bruins, Panthers, Maples Leafs, Jets and Flyers top lines show up. As well both the Jets and Kings second lines make another appearance.

Making their first appearance on a list in seventh is the Kings’ top line of Arvidsson, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. They round out a dominant top-six for a surprising Kings team this year as their second line ranks first for CF/60. As mentioned, Arvidsson is currently out with an injury however which has shuffled the Kings lines around for now.

Finally, the long time veteran trio of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith make their first appearance. With the Golden Knights missing their two best forwards for most of the season, the always dependable trio settled nicely into the top spot on the depth chart, although Karlsson is now also out with a injury.

Corsi against per 60 minutes

Similar to CF/60, corsi against per 60 measures essentially the same thing, just the opposite. With this metric we can measure the amount of shot attempts a line is giving up every 60 minutes of ice time, instead of how many they produce. The lower number means a line is giving up much less to the opposition when they are on the ice. Any line that features on both lists can be considered a dominant two-way line.

Boston BruinsMarchand – Bergeron – Pastrnak38.98
Pittsburgh PenguinsZucker – Rodrigues – Kapanen39.26
Florida PanthersVerhaeghe – Barkov – Duclair41.26
Edmonton OilersFoegele – Ryan – Kassian41.57
Winnipeg JetsStastny – Copp – Ehlers42.71
Calgary FlamesGaudreau – Lindholm – Tkachuk44.12
Buffalo SabresOlofsson – Thompson – Asplund45.25
LA KingsKempe – Danault – Iafallo46.1
Philadelphia FlyersGiroux – Couturier – Konecny46.52
Toronto Maple LeafsEngvall – Kampf – Kase46.74

As we just talked about, the Bruins’ perfection line is the unquestioned best two-way line in the sport, as they have been for many years. They’re the only line to feature in the top three in both CF/60 and CA/60. All three of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak rank top-10 in the NHL among forwards for individual CA/60, with Bergeron sitting first.

Once again, the Flames’ top line shows up, as they’ve been not only one of the best offensive lines in the league, but are also shutting things down at the other end with their elite two-way play. Leading the way is of course Tkachuk who ranks 15th league wide among forwards for CA/60.

Surprisingly the Penguins’ second line—who rank second for xGF%—are also dominant defensively ranking second as well for CA/60.

In Edmonton, Derek Ryan is doing Derek Ryan things as he’s somehow dragging a third line with Zack Kassian to be one of the best defensive lines in hockey right now. The offseason addition of Warren Foegele is also paying big dividends for the Oilers.

Similarly, the Maple Leafs third line is also represented at 10th, showing up on their second top-10 list as they’ve been among the best bottom-six lines in the NHL this year.

Calgary, Toronto, Boston, Florida, LA, Philadelphia and Winnipeg all feature lines in the top-10 for both CF/60 and CA/60. As the saying goes, the best defence is a good offence.

Notable observations

  • Only two lines in the NHL sit top-10 across each metric, with the Panthers and Flames top lines both featuring on all seven top-10 lists. The Panthers’ top line average ranking is 5.0, while the Flames’ top line average ranking is 3.4.
  • The Bruins perfection line shows up on six of seven lists, as they sit just outside the top-10 for on ice goals for at 14th.
  • Six of seven Canadian teams have at least one line featured on a top-10 list, with the Montreal Canadiens the only team with no lines ranking top-10 on any list.
  • The Maple Leafs’ third line of Kampf, Kase, and Engvall, the Flames’ third line of Coleman, Backlund, Pitlick, and the Flyers’ third line of Lindblom, Laughton and Van Riemsdyk have been the best bottom-six lines the in the NHL this season as they all feature on two lists.
  • The Flyers and the Maple Leafs both have the most lines appearing on a top-10 list, with their top three lines all earning a spot on at least one list.
  • The Flames, Flyers, Panthers, Maple Leafs, Kings, Jets and Oilers all have multiple lines appearing on at least one list.
  • The Colorado Avalanche’s elite top line of Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, and Nathan MacKinnon ranked top-10 in each metric except CA/60 last season, however they have only spent 55 minutes together this season due to injuries to MacKinnon and Rantanen.

Top line dominance

The proof is in the pudding—or in this case in the stats. The Flames’ top line is currently performing at level that is arguably the best in the league, not just among the best. Even if there is doubt that their pace is unsustainable, or that they need more prolonged results to be considered the best, they’re off to one of the best starts of any line in hockey right now.

Gaudreau, Tkachuk, and Lindholm were put together towards the end of the 2020–21 season. Now they’ve made a compelling case to never be taken apart.

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