Lining Up: Stack Lines or Not?

by Brennan Des on February 12, 2019

 

To stack or not to stack: that is the question. Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer through a lack of depth scoring or to make do with a mediocre but balanced attack. Okay, we’re done with the Shakespeare and I’m truly sorry if that gave you flashbacks of a high school English class you didn’t want to be in. I can assure you it pained me more to write it than it did you to read it.

This week is the first of two instalments in which we’ll be trying to assess whether certain teams are more likely to stack their top lines or opt for a more balanced attack going forward. For the purposes of this article, a ‘stacked’ line includes three players that are currently in the top 50 of NHL scoring. In the ‘To Stack’ section, we’ll be looking at lines that aren’t currently rolling their best three forwards on the same line, while the ‘Not to Stack’ section will focus on lines that are currently stacked and may be broken up to spark scoring throughout the lineup. In the table, Left Wing, Center, and Right Wing are general placeholders and represent how the line fares when a certain player is off the ice. So, if you see Center instead of McDavid, it means we’re considering how Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins perform when their line does not include McDavid. Hopefully everything makes sense as you keep reading, but feel free to ask any questions if something is unclear.

 

To Stack?

Leon DraisaitlConnor McDavidRyan Nugent-Hopkins

 

Combination

Goals For

Goals Against

Corsi For %

TOI

Draisaitl – McDavid – Right Wing

31

23

50.11

481:10

Left Wing – McDavid – Nugent-Hopkins

11

13

51.90

269:04

Draisaitl – Center – Nugent-Hopkins

1

3

29.23

32:04

Draisaitl – McDavid – Nugent-Hopkins

4

1

50.72

31:31

Stats retrieved from NaturalStatTrick

 

For the entirety of this season, the Oilers have maintained that their goal is to make the playoffs. With almost 75 percent of the season behind us, Edmonton sits six points out of a playoff spot and just two points ahead of Anaheim for last place in the Western Conference. As you can see above, the ‘nuclear option’ of Draisaitl – McDavid – Nugent-Hopkins hasn’t been turned to often this season. However, with the team dropping seven of their last eight contests, one has to wonder if coach Ken Hitchcock has considered playing his three most talented forwards on the same unit. The problem with that is, Edmonton’s struggles this season are rooted in a lack of depth-scoring. After Alex Chiasson who has 27 points in 46 games, the next highest scoring forward on the team is Jujhar Khaira – who has 16 points in 51 games.

In my opinion, there’s no reason to ‘stack’ the top line in Edmonton because Draisaitl and McDavid already score at an insanely high rate – regardless of who the third member of their trio is. Something I’d be curious to see going forward is how Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl would fare on the second line with someone like Jesse Puljujarvi. You might gasp at that suggestion considering Draisaitl and RNH don’t have very good possession numbers when they play together, but you have to remember that they control such a low percentage of the shot share because they’re only deployed in defensive situations. Of course, that would leave Connor McDavid to play with Alex Chiasson and Milan Lucic. While some beautiful plays by McDavid are probably going to be wasted on Lucic and his lackluster offensive abilities, Chiasson has shown great finishing ability with 17 goals this season.  

 

Nikita KucherovBrayden PointSteven Stamkos

 

Combination

Goals For

Goals Against

Corsi For %

TOI

Kucherov – Point – Right Wing

30

23

50.83

453:03

Nikita KucherovCenter – Stamkos

15

12

56.10

239:07

Left Wing – Point – Stamkos

2

1

58.25

68:37

Kucherov – Point – Stamkos

1

0

57.58

19:07

Stats retrieved from NaturalStatTrick

 

I’m about to hit you with a very hot take and I beg you to let me justify my opinion before going crazy in the comments section: the Tampa Bay Lightning are a very good hockey team. There, I said it. In all seriousness, while I’m sure you’re aware that Tampa sits atop the league standings, do you know how far ahead they are? To give you an idea, the second place Calgary Flames trail the Lightning by 12 points. 12 points! Do you know how a big a gap that is? 12 points also separate 2nd place in the league from 14th.

Why did I waste so much time gushing over Tampa Bay’s success this season? Well, the goal was to paint a picture of where the team currently sits, in order to project how they’re going to treat the rest of this season. Considering how dominant the Lightning have been during the regular season, it’s only natural for them to start looking ahead to the playoffs. From what we’ve seen in the past, one offensively ‘stacked’ line hasn’t really carried a team to the Stanley Cup. With that in mind, it’s unlikely coach Jon Cooper feels the need to unite his three top scorers on the same unit. Rather, he’ll keep the offense spread out as it is currently in order to build chemistry and have four solid lines clicking when the playoffs begin. In my opinion, stacking a line should never be a team’s first option because when that line hits a wall, your team is up a creek without a paddle. Opposing teams tend to have at least one good shutdown line, so in today’s game you need more than one line that can score in order to create favourable matchups.

So, if you don’t own one of Tampa’s big boys, how does all this affect you as a fantasy hockey GM? Well, with coach Jon Cooper unlikely to stack his top line, it gives the rest of the roster exposure to some very talented players, allowing them to be more productive. So, you can add guys like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, J.T. Miller and Yanni Gourde, who might be available on the waiver wire and should see varying levels of time with a Point, Kucherov, and/or Stamkos. While Kucherov and Point have been playing with Tyler Johnson for the majority of the season, you’ll notice that Yanni Gourde was skating with Point and Kucherov in Tampa’s last game. In this way, different players in Tampa can hold more value at different points in the season, so keep an eye out on the line combinations!

 

Not to Stack?

Gabriel LandeskogNathan MacKinnonMikko Rantanen

 

Combination

Goals For

Goals Against

Corsi For %

TOI

Landeskog – MacKinnon – Rantanen

44

25

54.39

753:15

Left Wing – MacKinnon – Rantanen

3

6

47.22

46:03

Landeskog – Center – Rantanen

1

3

40.30

39:49

Landeskog – Mackinnon – Right Wing

1

2

47.14

35:01

Stats retrieved from NaturalStatTrick

 

Should the Avalanche break up their top line? No. But unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Good teams have multiple lines that can score, allowing coaches to evade the opposition’s shutdown line and create favourable matchups. But sometimes, a line can be so good that it doesn’t matter who’s defending them, they’ll find a way to score. That’s the case in Colorado, where the Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen trio has the best goal differential of any line in the league (+19 according to NaturalStatTrick, +18 according to Corsica). As you can see in the table above, the offense is nowhere near as effective when coach Jared Bednar breaks up his top line. When Mackinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog are separated, not only do they control less of the shot share than when they’re together, but they also create fewer scoring chances. As a trio, they’ve generated 54.8% of all scoring chances, but when separated they best they’ve done is about 47% (Mackinnon and Rantanen without Landeskog).

Does Colorado need more scoring from their second, third, and fourth lines? Absolutely. But the reality is, breaking up the team’s top line hasn’t really sparked the team’s depth scoring (although the sample size is still small). I should also note, that Colorado’s main problem this season has been goaltending – not putting the puck in the net. They’re top 10 in goal-scoring, averaging 3.27 goals for per game, but bottom 10 in goaltending – allowing an average of 3.31 goals against per game. Considering the Mackinnon-Landeskog-Rantanen line has been together for the majority of the season and the team’s offense isn’t a problem, I don’t see a reason to break up that line.

With all that being said, the Avalanche are currently riding a seven-game losing streak, so I wouldn’t blame Bednar if he decides to scramble his lines in an attempt to change the team’s fortunes. If he’s going to do that, he needs to commit to it though. Expose guys like J.T. Compher and Alexander Kerfoot to Mackinnon, Rantanen, and/or Landeskog for long enough to see if any chemistry is developing. If I’m the coach, I already know that the Land-Mack-Rant line is excellent – that’s a tool I know I have – but I’m also curious as to what other tools might be available to me, and the only way to find that out is to try out new line combos for more than just a game or two.

 

***

That’s all for this week folks! Next week we’ll be taking a look at whether Pittsburgh should stack their top line and whether the Bruins, Blue Jackets and Flames should try to spread their stars throughout the lineup. If there’s something in particular you want me to take a look at, shoot me a message on Twitter @BrennanDeSouza.