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It sure looks like the NHL has a new candidate for ‘best first line’

One was the runner-up for the Hart Trophy last season. One is tied for the league lead in scoring. One is the NHL’s reigning first star of the week. And together, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog have formed one of the league’s best lines.

There was very little debate last season that the Boston Bruins’ unit of Patrice Bergeron between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak was the most effective top line in the NHL.

In Bergeron, Boston’s first line was centered by inarguably the best two-way center in the game. In Marchand, the Bruins were able to throw an agitator over the boards who could lay a licking on opponents in the corners, on the scoresheet and sometimes, much to the league’s chagrin, in a literal sense. And Pastrnak was the perfect third for the unit. A sharpshooting speedster with more creativity than a Bob Ross painting session, he further established himself as a force last season.

So, with the line back together to start the season as the no-doubt, go-to guys for Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, any and all debate about which line would be the most fearsome in the NHL throughout the 2018-19 campaign usually began or ended with mention of Boston’s first unit. They drove the Bruins’ offense for much of last season, finishing first through third in team scoring, and were dominant at both ends of the ice. But as we approach the completion of the third week of the new season, Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak look like they’ve got some early competition for the title of the NHL’s best line in the form of the Colorado Avalanche’s top trio.

Waking up Tuesday morning, you don’t need to look all that far to find Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog in the headlines. Monday evening in Philadelphia, MacKinnon and Rantanen stamped their names on scoresheet in the Avalanche’s 4-1 victory over the Flyers, both picking up two goals and three points between them. Meanwhile, Landeskog, who was fresh off of being named the NHL’s First Star of the Week, kept the hot hand with a one-goal, two-point performance, his early third period marker putting Philadelphia away for good.

It’s not just a one-game performance that has made the MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog line stand out, however. It’s not even a pair of games or a three-game run. Rather, it’s the trio’s play over the past five games, a span of 10 days, in which the unit has basically been the Colorado attack that has made them impossible to ignore. Consider that across the past five games, over which the Avalanche have a 3-0-2 record and earned eight of a possible 10 points, Colorado has scored 16 goals. And while a conservative estimate might be that the top line has contributed something like half of those tallies, the actual offensive impact of the line is eye-popping. One or more of MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog have factored in on 13 of the 16 goals the Avalanche have scored over that span.

Even a cursory glance at the NHL’s scoring leaders, too, would be enough for one to consider the MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog line as the league’s best. When Rantanen is tied for first with 16 points in nine games and MacKinnon is sitting third in the league with 15 points, it’s hard not to sit up and take notice.

There’s far more to Colorado’s top line than this nine-game segment, which could be argued is far too small of a sample to matter all that much in the larger debate about the NHL’s best line. The dominance of the trio really began last season.

According to Corsica, no line has skated more minutes together at 5-on-5 than the Avalanche’s top unit (857 minutes) since the start of the 2017-18 campaign, and of the 29 lines with at least 400 minutes together at five-a-side, the trio of MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog ranks first in goals for (56), fourth in goals for per 60 minutes (3.9) and seventh in goals for percentage (65.6). The unit is all the more formidable at all strengths. Again, among lines with at least 400 minutes together, the Avalanche’s top line is first in goals for (111), while also sitting fifth in goals for per 60 minutes (5.8) and second in goals for percentage (74.0). The chemistry between the three players is off the charts, and that’s reflected in the way they’ve produced.

The argument that scoring isn’t the be all and end all in terms of making a line effective isn’t without merit, of course, and it could be said that there are facets of the game where MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog struggle. The line’s possession rate is the seventh worst (50.3 Corsi for percentage) at 5-on-5 among the 400-minute lines since the start of 2017-18 despite a middling zone start ratio. Their expected goals for percentage is also the sixth lowest (50.9) and they have the 12th-worst goals against per 60 minutes (2.0). When taking those into account, maybe it is the Bruins’ top unit that remains the best. Maybe the Toronto Maple Leafs’ line of John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman gets the nod. Or maybe it’s the Dallas Stars’ unit of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alex Radulov.

Any way you try to slice it, though, the MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog line has become undeniable. They’re in the conversation for the top trio in the NHL, a candidate for the best line in the game. And if pure offensive firepower is what you’re after, Colorado’s top line may very well be the best thing going right now.


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