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The Countdown: Top-Six Forward Groups

One-line teams get one-way tickets out of title town. In today’s NHL, teams’ forward brigades need to go six deep for realistic shot at Stanley Cup.

There's a reason why the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars were so aggressive in the off-season. Both had impressive playoff runs, coming within a game apiece of the Western Conference final, but both, in the end, fell short. Largely to blame: both were one-line teams.

During the regular season, the respective top trios for the Avs (Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen) and Stars (Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov) provided an inordinate amount of their team’s goals. Colorado and Dallasthus had to deepen their top-sixes and worked hard to shore them up on the trade and UFA markets.

More so than a Big Line league, the NHL is a Top-Six league now. The best way to evaluate a team’s offense is through its top two lines, as many teams don’t ice true “first” lines anymore. Which teams have the strongest top-sixes on paper, according to early 2019-20 line projections?

A few rules for this ranking: (a) teams strong at center earn more points than teams strong on the wings, as centers typically drive play on their lines; (b) depth matters, so teams with one powerhouse line aren’t automatically ranked near the top; and (c) if you see your team’s top-six ranked lowly, don’t panic. The top six forwards make up just 31.6 percent of a team’s in-game lineup.

1. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
I. Mikheyev, J. Tavares, M. Marner, A. Johnsson, A. Matthews, W. Nylander
Arguably the only team in the league that can claim to have “two first lines,” with Tavares and Matthews 1A and 1B.

2. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
O. Palat, S. Stamkos, N. Kucherov, Y. Gourde, B. Point, T. Johnson
Sum of Tampa’s top-six can match any team’s. Point, Palat add defensive responsibility to the potent offense, too.

3. WASHINGTON CAPITALS
A. Ovechkin, E. Kuznetsov, T. Wilson, J. Vrana, N. Backstrom, T.J. Oshie
Both lines have a No. 1 center. In ‘Ovie’ and Wilson, Caps ice game’s best goal-scorer and most intimidating forward.

4. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
J. Guentzel, S. Crosby, B. Rust, J. McCann, E. Malkin, A. Galchenyuk
Crosby and Malkin elevate lesser players to create deadly lines. They’ve done that time and again throughout their careers.

5. WINNIPEG JETS
K. Connor, M. Scheifele, B. Wheeler, N. Ehlers, B. Little, P. Laine
This group is as talented as any. Little is aging and could be replaced by Roslovic this season. Can Laine bounce back?

6. CALGARY FLAMES
Gaudreau, S. Monahan, E. Lindholm, M. Tkachuk, M. Backlund, M. Frolik
First line brings elite offense. Second line operates as an elite two-way unit that can also score a fair amount.

7. VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
J. Marchessault, W. Karlsson, R. Smith, M. Pacioretty, P. Stastny, M. Stone
This top-six has no weak link. Stone line was devastating in playoffs. But Vegas’ star power isn’t as high as teams above.

8. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
B. Saad, J. Toews, P. Kane, A. DeBrincat, D. Strome, B. Perlini
Reunited OHL teammates DeBrincat, Strome forged stellar second line, allowing Toews, Kane to rekindle chemistry.

9. BOSOTN BRUINS
B. Marchand, P. Bergeron, D. Pastrnak, J. DeBrusk, D. Krejci, K. Kuhlman
B’s first line is NHL’s best. Depth drops off a bit after that. Krejci is savvy, DeBrusk improving, Kuhlman a wild card.

10. FLORIDA PANTHERS
J. Huberdeau, A. Barkov, E. Dadonov, M. Hoffman, V. Trocheck, O. Tippett
First line solidly established. Second brings great secondary offense. If Line 2 finds a right winger, this rank is too low.

11. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
C. Giroux, S. Couturier, T. Konecny, J. van Riemsdyk, K. Hayes, J. Voracek
Deep group is high on playmaking and 200-foot excellence, but lacks top-tier goal-scorer. Can Konecny make jump?

12. COLORADO AVALANCHE
G. Landeskog, N. MacKinnon, M. Rantanen, T. Jost, N. Kadri, A. Burakovsky
MacKinnon drives best trio in the conference. If new arrival Kadri gives Avs a legit second line: Cup contender.

13. ST. LOUIS BLUES
J. Schwartz, B. Schenn, V. Tarasenko, S. Blais, R. O’Reilly, D. Perron
A lunchpail group. They’re scrappy and physical. O’Reilly does a bit of everything. Tarasenko brings the finish.

14. SAN JOSE SHARKS
T. Meier, L. Couture, K. Labanc, E. Kane, T. Hertl, M. Karlsson
Excellent on left wing and up the middle. Thin on right side. Can Labanc become a front-line player this season?

15. NASHVILLE PREDATORS
F. Forsberg, R. Johansen, V. Arvidsson, M. Granlund, M. Duchene, C. Smith
Always reliable for two-way play but needed to get more dynamic. Signing Duchene helps. Arvidsson so underrated.

16. DALLAS STARS
J. Benn, T. Seguin, A. Radulov, J. Dickinson, R. Hintz, J. Pavelski
The vets are solid. Key to season is whether Dickinson and Hintz carry over the strides they showed in playoffs.

17. EDMONTON OILERS
L. Draisaitl, C. McDavid, J. Neal, A. Chiasson, R. Nugent-Hopkins, S. Gagner
It’s painful to put a top-six with McDavid and Draisaitl so low. Oilers have struggled to find them help, especially at right wing.

18. NEW JERSEY DEVILS
T. Hall, N. Hischier, W. Simmonds, N. Gusev, J. Hughes, K. Palmieri
Huge potential. Hughes could be a star right away, and if Gusev is Panarin, not Shipachyov, this team will score a ton.

19. NEW YORK RANGERS
A. Panarin, M. Zibanejad, P. Buchnevich, C. Kreider, R. Strome, K. Kakko
Nice balance of size and skill. Buchnevich and Strome placeholders for Kravtsov and one of Chytil or Andersson.

20. CAROLINA HURRICANES
A. Svechnikov, S. Aho, T. Teravainen, R. Dzingel, J. Staal, N. Niederreiter
If Svechnikov makes leap in Year 2, Canes’ first line will be among the NHL’s best. Staal better on ‘D’ than ‘O’ now.

21. VANCOUVER CANUCKS
J.T. Miller, E. Pettersson, B. Boeser, S. Baertschi, B. Horvat, M. Ferland
Canucks set at center with nifty Pettersson and leader Horvat. Boeser brings the goals. The rest is patchwork.

22. NEW YORK ISLANDERS
A. Lee, M. Barzal, J. Eberle, A. Beauvillier, B. Nelson, J. Bailey
Barzal can control games. Top-six has high floor but a low ceiling as four members have already peaked.

23. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
G. Nyquist, P-L Dubois, C. Atkinson, N. Foligno, A. Wennberg, J. Anderson
Panarin left and took team’s ceiling with him, but Dubois will keep getting better. First line will still score plenty.

24. BUFFALO SABRES
J. Skinner, J. Eichel, S. Reinhart, C. Sheary, C. Mittelstadt, K. Okposo
First line met expectations last season. For Sabres to make playoffs, second line has to improve – particularly Mittelstadt.

25. ARIZONA COYOTES
C. Dvorak, N. Schmaltz, C. Keller, L. Crouse, D. Stepan, P. Kessel
Kessel will help and Keller will improve. Coyotes have put a lot of pressure on Schmaltz to be a No. 1 with rich deal.

26. MONTREAL CANADIENS
T. Tatar, P. Danault, B. Gallagher, J. Drouin, M. Domi, J. Armia
Unspectacular but fast and feisty. Gallagher quietly great for past two seasons. Domi was born to play in Montreal.

27. MINNESOTA WILD
J. Zucker, M. Koivu, M. Zuccarello, K. Fiala, E. Staal, Z. Parise
One of oldest top-sixes in the league. Koivu returning from a major injury. Parise healthy last year, but can it last?

28. LOS ANGELES KINGS
N. Prokhorkin, A. Kopitar, D. Brown, I. Kovalchuk, J. Carter, T. Toffoli
Big still plays in today’s NHL, but big and slow do not. Kopitar too good to be that bad again. Prokhorkin a dice roll.

29. DETROIT RED WINGS
T. Bertuzzi, D. Larkin, A. Mantha, A. Athanasiou, F. Nielsen, F. Zadina
A group in transition. Zadina is top-six worthy if he can make team. Speedy two-way center Larkin is the jewel.

30. ANAHEIM DUCKS
R. Rakell, R. Getzlaf, O. Kase, M. Comtois, A. Henrique, J. Silfverberg
Getzlaf can still pass puck and is flanked by good finishers. By year’s end, rookies Steel and Terry should be second-liners.

31. OTTAWA SENATORS
B. Tkachuk, C. White, D. Batherson, A. Duclair, C. Tierney, C. Brown
Tkachuk and Batherson have legit first-line upside. White has shutdown ability. The rest: stopgaps until more kids arrive.

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