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Having a Consistent Top Line Actually Doesn't Matter

Also known as: Strength in Numbers, Redux.

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

(Note: This isn't a "We love Seth Griffith 'cause he scored two goals last night!" piece, since I actually wrote this over the weekend. But, it rings all the more true this morning.)

Hockey can sometimes be a numbers game. Numbers in the sense that 23 make the roster, 19 hit the ice, and 18 skate on lines or in pairings. Typically 12 are comprised of forwards, and your best three skate on what is known as your "top line." If it sounds self-explanatory, it’s because it is. Your best skaters—the ones that have the highest chance of putting the puck in the net and (likely) get paid the most—skate on your first line. So when the Bruins opened up the season with Matt Fraser, Seth Griffith and Simon Gagne platooning as the right wing on the Bruins presumed "top line," there were quite a few questions and concerns from many—myself included.

Now that we’re eleven games into the season, it’s clear that Seth Griffith has fought off his competition and emerged as the best option of the three to be the needed right-shot right wing. It’s his first crack at the NHL, and people have a right to give Peter Chiarelli a double-take. Griff could be what Reilly Smith was last year, and surprise everyone. Or he could be what Jordan Caron was the last three years, and disappoint everyone. The truth is, none of us know until he skates there.

Your lines need to develop through the course of a season.

But you might think, "True Cup-contenders don’t fill prime roster spots with unproven guys", or "You need a legitimate 1st line to compete for a championship." Or even "You’re best off having a 1st line that’ll have true chemistry and can play together for the entire season." And up until recently, I would’ve agreed with you. I would’ve loved a Lucic-Krejci-Iginla combo putting up 180+ points and skating together for 90% of the regular season. It would’ve made me comfortable.

The thing is, consistent lines don’t necessarily work. Not for an entire season. Not against better defenses and better goaltenders. Not in the modern NHL. Your lines need to develop through the course of a season. It’s how you get the Kelly-Carl-Loui line. It’s how you find Reilly Smith flourishing on the 2nd line with Bergeron and Marchand. In terms of playing for a Cup and winning it? It’s how you position yourself to play the best hockey you can for that season. And you know what? It’s proven to be true with all the recent Stanley Cup champions.

Since 2008-09, only two of the six Finals featured teams whose best lines rarely changed. I took the best two scoring lines in terms of Corsi For for each Conference champion over the last six years, and found that just six lines (out of a possible 24) played 75% or more of the regular season together. (I made the minimum cutoff 20GP and 150 TOI, to remove power play lines)

When Pittsburgh won in 2009? Crosby’s line with Miroslav Satan and Pascal Dupuis only played 29 games together. The next year, Kane-Toews-Brouwer was only a line for 40 games. That Recchi-Bergeron-Marchand line that was crucial in the 2011 Finals? Skated just 43 games together in the regular season. And last year, Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams only skated together for 42 games, just barely over half the season. And the numbers are skewed because of the shortened season—both Chicago and Boston’s two best lines skated together for +75% of the season, and that was primarily out of necessity since teams wanted consistency right out of the gate. It was the exception to the rule.

What's interesting is that the best scoring lines across the league don’t generally play the majority of the season together. In 2009-10, the Semin-Backstrom-Ovechkin line was a wagon. Yet even they only played 39 games together. Toews and Kane skated with Stalberg two years ago, putting up a 63.2 CF%. But they only played 23 games together. Just 4 of the 24 best CF% lines in the last six years have played 75% of the season together. And in 4 out of the last 6 years, at least one of the best four lines in terms of CF% has missed the playoffs entirely. Only two of those lines have won the Cup, and both played for Los Angeles last year.

My favorite "don’t panic" stat however has to be the track record of the most consistent lines. Looking at the top four lines with the most time-on-ice together over the last 6 seasons, a big fat zero have hoisted Lord Stanley in June. Only one has even played in the Cup Finals. Four have made it by the first round. And a whopping 13 of the 24 most consistent lines have missed the playoffs altogether.

The typical way of thinking is that if you have a really good line, you put them together for the majority of the season, sit back, and watch them dominate the league. But in reality, if you have a dominant line that you write out in ink and barely—if ever—shuffle, it shows how lackluster the rest of your team is. It shows that no one else on the team even sniffs first line talent.

Griffith on the first line is a good sign

That’s why Griffith on the first line is a good sign—at least in for now. Because not only does it have a kid with potential first line talent skating with the team's best offensive forward, it shows how stable the rest of the Bruins are. Krejci can develop chemistry with Griff, and while he looks really good right now, if it’s ultimately not there they can try Fraser or Eriksson. The coach and GM know that Bergeron and Soderberg will have solid lines with solid wings around them to fill in their roles. When you have a roster full of good players, you can slot them up and down the lineup until you find what clicks.

Krejci might not have a right wing he skates with for 70 games, 60 games, or even 50 games. But come April, when he’s skating with whoever for their 30-somethingth game together, it’ll be because they gel together, because they have chemistry. That's how you create a successful offense.