It all started with a line shuffle.
Last year on October 30th, the Boston Bruins faced a 3-0 deficit at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and around the halfway mark of the contest, head coach Bruce Cassidy decided to shake things up a bit. He went top heavy, pairing his two scoring wingers Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak with the perennial Selke Award candidate Patrice Bergeron. The result? A 4-3 comeback victory at Nationwide Arena that night.
Since then, the line has become arguably the best line in hockey. Cassidy was asked later that season about his combination, “Once they started playing well together, it was hard to break them up,” Cassidy remarked. “I think that’s what it came down to. I think the plan, at some point, was see if we could go back to what we started because we thought we’d be more dangerous, but it kind of evolved into where we started to win games, and that line could skate together.”
After a disappointing start with Anders Bjork alongside Marchand and Bergeron, David Pastrnak stepped in and provided the offensive spark needed, and the line dominated the rest of the regular season and playoffs. They are off to a torrid pace to start this season as well, with a combined 50 points through 12 games, including every point tallied in last night’s 3-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.
It would be easy to write them off as the best line in the NHL, but this year there’s a new kid on the block drawing lots of attention in Colorado. The Avs’ top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen have paced the NHL thus far with 55 points in 12 games, including Rantanen’s league leading 21. Although the bread and butter of the Boston Bruins system has classically been responsibility in the defensive zone, the Landeskog line even tops them in plus-minus, with a combined +40 so far compared to the Bergeron line’s +15.
Statistics like these rarely lie, but they can be very misleading. It would seem that the Avalanche have a significant advantage in every category, but there is one important detail that needs to be factored into any debate about the best line in hockey, and it doesn’t even involve anyone on the line. The goaltender is arguably the most important position in hockey, as a hot goalie can bring a team to glory that maybe shouldn’t have been in contention in the first place (a la Tim Thomas, 2011).
Semyon Varlamov is off to by far the best start of his career in net for the Avalanche, posting a 4-2-2 record with a 1.67 GAA and a .950 SV%. The Landeskog line has clearly benefitted from his outstanding start, as even though they are far ahead of the Bergeron line in plus/minus, they give up more shots than they attempt. Reading further into the advanced stats, the Bergeron line has an average Corsi For (CF) % of 55%, compared to the Landeskog Line’s CF% of 48%. Meaning that the Bergeron line controls the puck 55% of the time when they are on the ice at even strength.
So the philosophy of defensive responsibility didn’t leave the Bruins with Claude Julien, but goaltending has been hampering the Bruins’ efforts to start the season. Former Vezina trophy winner (and the much maligned) Tuukka Rask has produced numbers unworthy of his $7 million dollar contract this year, with a .902 SV% next to a 3.15 GAA in 6 starts, having to be relieved by new acquisition Jaroslav Halak in one of those starts. Halak’s numbers have been solid compared to Rask’s, posting a 4-0-2 record in his 6 starts, with a .947 SV% and a 1.51 GAA.
There’s no question that both lines are phenomenal, and honestly some of the most fun to watch. Although the Landeskog line has the current edge in production, the overall BEST line in hockey has to be the Bergeron line. Between their equivalent offensive production and better defensive efforts, Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak have the clear edge in total level of play. While it’s fun to say that Mikko Rantanen is on pace for 150 points, it’s just unrealistic to think that him, his linemates, and Varlamov will continue this level of production. The Bruins have their goaltending woes to figure out, and there will be a time soon when Bruce Cassidy has to ride the hot hand in order to keep his team in the hunt.
The real question is: is the TD Garden saying “TUUUUUUKKA” when he steps out onto the ice, or do we have an infestation of boo birds on Causeway Street?