JEANINE LEECH/ICON SPORTSWIRE
NHL teams need depth to win Stanley Cups. One doesn’t have to go too far back in history to find a great example of this. From recent champions such as the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, or Pittsburgh Penguins, each team has had depth throughout its lineup. If the Capitals are to do that in the next month or so, they’ll need their entire lineup to produce, something that hasn’t been a problem thus far into the playoffs. And in their upcoming second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, their third-line will be key in this. NoVa Caps’ CJ Witt compares the two teams’ third-lines and how they stack up in this rematch of last year’s postseason.
Last spring, it was the HBK Line (Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel) that played a part in doing the Caps in and it isn’t hard to see why. Kessel led the team in scoring in the 2016 postseason with 22 points, including 10 goals. Bonino had 18 points, including some pretty important goals, one of which came in the series-clinching Game 6 against the Capitals in overtime, and another in the Stanley Cup Final in Game 1. Hagelin also did his part with 16 points.
All three of these players were among the top five in scoring for Pittsburgh in the playoffs last season. Kessel, as mentioned above, was first, Bonino was fourth, and Hagelin was fifth. The only other players in the top five were Sidney Crosby (19 points) and Evgeni Malkin (18 points). It’s fair to say that the Penguins may not have won the Cup without their third-line.
With teams in the NHL always trying to adjust to stay competitive in the best professional hockey league in the world, it came as no surprise that many teams did their best to construct lines similar to that of the Penguins’ HBK line. While finding a player with the same skill-set as Kessel isn’t something many teams can do, there are plenty of players who can provide the same offensive potential at a much-lower price.
Last year at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, the Capitals tried to improve their third-line by trading for center Lars Eller in a deal with the Montreal Canadiens. It was clear to many at the time the trade was announced that General Manager Brian MacLellan was intent on having Eller play at third-line center. Veteran Mike Richards did not work out as hoped after signing with the Caps late last season, and some argued that Jay Beagle, who started the 2015-16 season in the role, was better-suited for a fourth-line role.
It took some time for Eller to develop a rapport with his new teammates, but the Capitals eventually found the right combination, with a third-line consisting of Andre Burakovsky, Eller, and free agent signing Brett Connolly. It proved to be a very effective third-line, as the trio’s Corsi rating during the regular season was an outstanding 58.57, their Scoring Chance For percentage 52.83, and their Expected Goals For percentage was 54.56.
When compared to the HBK line’s performance this season for the Penguins, one will see that the difference in effectiveness is noticeable. The HBK Line finished the 2016-17 regular season with a Corsi rating of 45.92, a Scoring Chance For percentage of just 40.98, and 43.21 Expected Goals For percentage.
Lines can change, however, as teams advance in the playoffs. As the Capitals and Penguins enter the second round of the playoffs both of their third lines are different. The Capitals have replaced Connolly with Tom Wilson and the Penguins are rolling with a third-line of Scott Wilson, Bonino, and Patric Hornqvist. Hagelin has been injured since mid-March and Kessel has been playing on a line with Malkin.
Since this article is looking at the third-line matchup, those are the lines that will be focused on.
Washington Capitals Third-Line
Andre Burakovsky-Lars Eller-Tom Wilson
Combined Points: Seven (three goals)
The stats for this line have to be calculated a different way. The overall numbers show this specific line hasn’t played enough together to get the stats desired. The following numbers are each player’s numbers when playing with or without the others.
Wilson With Eller–
- 54.9 Corsi
- 50.0 Goals For%.
Wilson Without Eller–
- 49.9 Corsi
- 59.6 Goals For%.
Eller Without Wilson–
- 54.6 Corsi
- 62.5 Goals For%.
Wilson With Burakovsky–
- 57.1 Corsi
- 50.0 Goals For%.
Wilson Without Burakovsky–
- 50.1 Corsi
- 59.2 Goals For%.
Burakovsky Without Wilson–
- 55.2 Corsi
- 62.3 Goals For%.
***Wilson played about 90 minutes with Eller this season and only 27 minutes with Burakovsky.
Pittsburgh Penguins Third-Line
Pittsburgh’s third-line is a bit easier to read since according to Corsica.hockey, the Scott Wilson-Bonino-Hornqvist line has played about 42 minutes together in the playoffs.
Combined points– Five (Four goals)
Corsi rating– 44.3
Scoring Chance For%– 72.73
Expected Goals For%– 59.78
Lines can always change. If a team finds themselves in a difficult stretch during games, coaches can always go back to the lines that gave them the most success. If the Penguins aren’t getting enough scoring it wouldn’t be surprising if they moved Kessel away from Malkin and put him back with Bonino. Same goes for Wilson and Connolly for the Caps.
So Caps fans, what do you think? Who has the advantage this time around? Scott Wilson-Bonino-Hornqvist or Burakovsky-Eller-Tom Wilson? Hagelin is reportedly close to returning, does this concern you at all?
Depth played a huge part in the playoffs last season for a lot of teams. It shouldn’t be any different this year and the Capitals vs Penguins should be the best example of this.
By CJ Witt