At this very early point in the campaign we see plenty of players shifting between lines. While each team employs a different strategy, many test out young players under contract with junior teams to see if they might warrant more than a nine-game stay. Others might gauge if newcomers gel quickly with returning players to inspire greater production or provide a spark that may have been missing previously, or if veterans still have what it takes to play a key role over the long haul. Here are a few Western Conference even-strength combos working quite well over the first two weeks of the campaign and several others yet to click. We’ll have a look at power play units a bit further down the road.
Off to a fast start
Panik – Saad – Toews (14 points)
The Blackhawks blasted out of the gate with a 10-1 drubbing of the champion Penguins and skewed their statistics for the better during this initial portion of the year. Initial thoughts have Brandon Saad’s return to Chicago a smashing success with six goals, eight points and an unsustainable 23.1 shot percentage, with predictions of Jonathan Toews’ demise off base as he sports an early point-per-game pace (three goals, three assists) and his own gaudy 20.0 shot percentage as he’s registered points in all but Saturday night’s tilt with Nashville. Richard Panik has matched both with six points of his own, showing last year’s success as no fluke while continuing to do the dirty work with 11 hits and five blocks. Panik also has upped his presence on the man-advantage averaging 2:30 TOI per game. We’ll see how the season progresses, but early returns have Panik, Saad and Toews as the West’s most dominant trio.
Duchene – Kerfoot – Yakupov (9 points)
Did you see this coming? The Avalanche offseason was much about waiting to see where Matt Duchene and (to a much lesser degree) Harvard-grad Alexander Kerfoot would land. There was much less concern about former first-overall Nail Yakupov’s doings. Together they are leading a resurgent Avalanche squad with the West’s tied for second-best point total and 4-2-0 record. After a historically lean scoring year, they sit second to only Chicago in the West with 19 goals in the early going. Yakupov has already equaled last year’s goal total (not a difficult target I know) of three and added two assists while serving 3:03 average TOI on the power play. Duchene matched that goal output, registering three with three assists, giving Colorado brass an opportunity to exhale as their young star is still onboard and succeeding along with the rest of the squad. Kerfoot’s totals are less dramatic, but reputed as a distributor in college with 87 of his 123 Crimson points coming on assists, his effective passing game generates momentum on offense and puts line mates in advantageous positions. The numbers and increased minutes should eventually come. His lone goal and assist trails the trio as does his 13:10 TOI, but 3:14 average power play TOI appears a good sign.
Brown – Iafallo – Kopitar (13 points)
After a year in which they struggled to an even greater degree than usual to score, reflecting particularly on their top line with Kopitar’s 22-point dip in production, this is a good sign. Their franchise center is off to a fast start overall (four goals, four assists) and has clicked with reinvigorated vet Dustin Brown (four goals, three assists) and rookie Alex Iafallo as the trio’s produced 13 points at even strength through five contests. While Brown has spent significant time skating with Kopitar since they first became LA teammates in 2006-07, incoming undrafted NCAA signee Iaffalo lends speed and a work ethic that translates to a tireless and effective checking game benefiting his fellow top-line skaters. For now the left wing slot suits last year’s Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog well. After registering 51 points in 42 contests for the Frozen Four runners-up, he’ll continue working to generate chances for his better-known linemates while having a chance to increase his own point totals (just one assist thus far).
Not quite yet
Radulov – Benn – Seguin (2 points)
Adding Alexander Radulov to the Jaime Benn – Tyler Seguin line was supposed to help bring back all the points-power of a pre-2016-17 Stars club. It hasn’t happened yet as Dallas sits in the bottom half of the West in goals scored after five games. It’s very early, yes, and should improve. The three have gelled on the power play along with Devin Shore for nine points, Seguin and Benn each potting three goals on the man-advantage thus far. But the production hasn’t quite hit for Radulov yet registering just two assists in five contests. He’s taking slightly more than his 1.95 career per-game average in shots, as he’s fired 12 on goal (Seguin leads the league with 36 by the way, one more than Ovechkin) but, better known as a distributor, here’s betting the 20:03 TOI he’s currently getting per game breeds familiarity and future success.
Take your pick.
Due to injury Minnesota just hasn’t been able to establish a consistent scoring line. That’s quite a departure from the Wild’s prolific and deep 2016-17 relatively stable lineups, but it’s a new year. With Eric Haula, Jason Pominville and Alex Tuch traded away, and now Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund, Marcus Foligno, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter lost to injury, expect Minnesota’s strong goaltending and defense to dictate tempo attempting to control low-scoring affairs. While their top two lines of Ennis – Koivu – Zucker and Eriksson Ek – Staal – Stewart have scoring potential, this is a vastly different picture than the club very recently heralded as possessing the league’s deepest group of scorers. Their current top scoring lines, with three each, featuring Foligno with Stewart and Eriksson Ek, and Coyle skating with Staal and Zucker won’t be functional for a while. Expect more shifting in the near future as injuries heal and the club adjusts.
Baertschi – Horvat – Eriksson (2 points)
With Loui Eriksson’s Saturday evening knee injury we may see a lengthier reunion of the line that stirred Canuck fans at the end of a dismal 2016-17. Brock Boeser dressed for his first game of the year Thursday and now has a goal and an assist in two contests, including nearly six minutes of power play time in Saturday’s tilt against the Flames. After a stellar preseason and his four-goal, one-assist, nine-game NHL performance last spring he may be the missing ingredient that pushes Bo Horvat to the next level (two goals in their opener vs. Edmonton, no points since) and boosts Sven Baertschi from his middling production (0.45 point average in 210 career contests).
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