Every year, and sometimes several times throughout an NHL season, there are questions about which line is the best in the league.
I take a run at that question for the 2009-2010 season, to this point, examining any trios that has combined for at least 35 even strength points this season.
Setting that minimum benchmark leaves several lines out of contention, for a number of reasons, not least of all that an injury to a significant offensive contributor often prevents a team from keeping consistent lines long enough for a line to not only gel, but accumulate those points at even strength.
That means apologies to anyo of the big scorers in Detroit,; similarly, line-juggling on Pittsburgh's top two lines leaves Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin out of consideration, essentially because they haven't established a consistent presence with one set of wingers this season.
It also means that, while one Tampa Bay trio is included, another (which would include Steve Downie) just missed the mark, scoring 33 points.
On the whole, that second Tampa line would rank even higher, but the line was drawn at 35, figuring that means a line needs to contribute one point for every two games to this point of the season.
Using the statistics from www.dobberhockey.com, there were 23 lines that had recorded at least 35 points at even strength this season and those were the ones taken under consideration.
It would be easy enough to just take the total points a line has scored 5-on-5, rank them and say that is the best line, but that doesn't do much to address obvious differences in playing time, so (also from www.dobberhockey.com) I've included the percentage of a team's ice time that has gone to that specific line.
In many cases, the total doesn't seem particularly significant, but once you take special teams and 4-on-4 play out, you're left with a smaller piece of the pie and then if there are any injuries or any line-juggling (and even the most committed coaches can't help that), that all takes time away from a particular line staying intact.
Additionally, since there are two ends of the rink to account for, each player's (and this comes from www.behindthenet.ca) 5-on-5 goal differential per 60 minutes and shot differential per 60 minutes are included.
Naturally, because players end up on different lines throughout a game -- let alone a season -- these numbers can vary from player to player, perhaps helping to indicate which ones are more responsible for the success of the line as a whole.
While ultra statheads might like a Corsi rating to be included as well, shot differential is included as it helps differentiate, particularly in cases in which teams have notably strong goaltending (eg. Buffalo, Phoenix, Colorado), between a line that may have a strong goal differential simply because they get bailed out, or at least helped, by their goaltender.
In any case, these results represent a good indication which lines are getting the job done in 5-on-5 situations this season.
The top-ranked line, the Sedin Twins with Alex Burrows in Vancouver, was recently split up, then re-united as Mikael Samuelsson was injured, which goes to show that even the best lines get a shake-up now -and-then.
"It's a bonus for sure to be able to have ways to change the lineup and still be successful," Henrik Sedin recently told the Vancouver Province about the line shuffle. "When things aren't going well you can change up, sometimes you have to change up, and now we know we can go back anytime. It's great to have different combinations we know are going to work."
Vancouver's second line has also been very good, as has Pittsburgh's third line. The overall numbers on goal differential were especially strong for the Penguins but, given the matchups they would likely face on a nightly basis once the Crosby and Malkin lines ate up the bulk of the ice time, the Penguins trio was brought down some because the lines above them would face more difficult matchups.
The Ovechkin-Backstrom tandem in Washington is outrageously productive, anchoring two of the top three lines.
Finally, don't take the rankings below to indicate that the Wheeler-Krejci-Ryder line in Boston is considered more dangerous than, say, Kunitz-Crosby-Guerin in Pittsburgh or Datsyuk-Franzen-Holmstrom in Detroit; only that those lines haven't been together enough this season to get included in this evaluation.
1. VANCOUVER CANUCKS
2. WASHINGTON CAPITALS
3. WASHINGTON CAPITALS
4. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
5. NEW JERSEY DEVILS
6. SAN JOSE SHARKS
7. ANAHEIM DUCKS
8. VANCOUVER CANUCKS
9. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
10. BUFFALO SABRES
11. COLORADO AVALANCHE
12. NEW YORK RANGERS
13. PHOENIX COYOTES
14. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
15. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
16. DALLAS STARS
17. MINNESOTA WILD
18. ST. LOUIS BLUES
||% Ice Time
||Goal Diff. Per 60
||Shot Diff. Per 60
19. DALLAS STARS
20. ATLANTA THRASHERS
21. BOSTON BRUINS
22. FLORIDA PANTHERS
||% Ice Time
||Goal Diff. Per 60
||Shot Diff. Per 60
23. BOSTON BRUINS
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen