We’re officially underway with the 2017-18 NHL season, and boy does it feel good. That preseason BS is finally over, and now the games actually matter.
The dust is slowly settling within each roster, and the lines are becoming clearer. If you head over to the handy Daily Faceoff website—a great fantasy hockey resource—you can look at how all 31 teams’ players are currently lining up.
For today’s list I went ahead and picked out the eight best first lines in the NHL, and I also identified the seven worst top lines. Now, to be clear, I’m aware that these lines will all certainly change throughout the course of the year; this is simply a ranking of the top lines as they stand in the early portion of the season. It's likely by the time you're reading this that some line will already be changing things up, but the fact that these teams started the season with these lines likely means they'll go back to them at some point.
Looking at the league’s top lines, it’s interesting to see how some teams are splitting up their top-end talent, whereas others are stacking their first lines with them. Who’s to say which is the superior option, but stacking the top line helped a few of the teams crack the top eight here, and conversely splitting up top talent meant that some really good clubs aren’t showing up on our list. Enjoy:
15 Best: Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust - Pittsburgh Penguins
The Pittsburgh Penguins are one of the clubs that splits up its top-end talent, as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin almost never play together at even strength. That said, Crosby is so good that his line still cracks the top eight in the league, despite having Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust on his wings for the time being.
While one could make the argument that Guentzel is close to top-line caliber, it’s difficult to prove as he’s only played on a line with Crosby thus far in his young career. It’d be tough to convince me that Rust is a top-six player, let alone one of first line caliber, but this just shows that having a generational talent on your line pretty well automatically makes it among the best in the NHL.
14 Worst: Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Thomas Vanek - Vancouver Canucks
If I were writing this article in 2010, this line would be right up there with the best. Unfortunately for the Canucks, it’s 2017 and if you add the ages of these three players up, they are 107. We can debate whether it’s wise for a team in full rebuild mode to stack their top line with these grizzled veterans, but let’s just agree that this is a lackluster top line.
In all honesty I believe that Bo Horvat is a better player today than the Sedins, so perhaps the Horvat/Sven Baertschi/Loui Eriksson line is really the first line. Even if that’s the case, though, it would also end up on the bad part of this list. To sum it up: Vancouver doesn’t really have a hope in hell this season. Sorry 'Nucks fans.
13 Best: Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Jakub Voracek - Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers have made a somewhat curious change to their first line this season, shifting Claude Giroux from center to the wing and moving Sean Couturier up to pivot the top line. Couturier has traditionally been a shut-down type center, so it’s a little odd to see Dave Hakstol deploy him here. Nonetheless, Couturier’s linemates help this unit qualify as one of the best in the league.
Both Giroux and Voracek had off seasons in 2016-17, but they’re both very talented and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see them bounce back in a big way this season. The Flyers basically need this to happen, as they have over $16M tied up in the duo for the next five seasons. If they don’t pull it together it could be a long decade for Philly fans.
12 Worst: David Perron, Cody Eakin, James Neal - Vegas Golden Knights
The Vegas Golden Knights have surprisingly started off the season strong and James Neal has been on fire. So, it may be a little unfair of me to call this line one of the worst top lines in the league, but I realize that a strong start doesn't make a whole season. The Golden Knights will certainly get a dose of reality soon—possibly by the time you’re reading this—and they will fall back to Earth.
Of this trio, Neal is the only forward who has spent substantial time on a top line in the NHL. He bounced around during his time in Nashville, and he spent the better part of 2011-12 on a line with Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, the season that Crosby only played 22 games. David Perron has maxed out at line 2, and to be honest I’m not sure Cody Eakin has ever played above the third line.
11 Best: Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews, Richard Panik - Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks brought back a familiar face in the offseason, sending away Artemi Panarin in exchange for Brandon Saad. They proceeded to stick Saad on a line with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik, and that trio is one of the best in the league. While Saad and Toews are no strangers to first line duty, Panik is cast a little out of his league here.
Nonetheless, Saad and Toews have picked up right where they left off together when Saad was last a Blackhawk. The pair have great chemistry, and Panik so far seems to be fitting in on the right side very well. That’s music to Chicago and its fans as it means they can keep superstar Patrick Kane on another line, meaning they basically have two first lines.
10 Worst: Alex Iafallo, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown - Los Angeles Kings
Daily Faceoff has this listed as the Kings top line, but an argument could be made that “That ‘70s Line” is actually L.A.’s best line. Conversely, any line with Anze Kopitar should probably be considered a first line anywhere, so I’ll go with it. Dustin Brown, however, hasn’t been a first line player for five years now, and the undrafted Alex Iafallo is playing the first games of his professional career.
I’m not convinced that this line will still be together by the time I finish writing this paragraph, let alone for the rest of the season. In any case though, assuming they keep That ‘70s Line as the second line, any other wingers who come up to replace Iafallo or Brown really won’t be much better. Offense is not the Kings’ strong suit, and goals will likely be hard to come by for the Kings in 2017-18.
9 Best: Patrick Maroon, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl - Edmonton Oilers
The top line in Edmonton is another unit that I cannot foresee spending the entire season together, simply because the Oilers need Leon Draisaitl to drive the offense on a second scoring line. They can’t afford to keep Dr. Drai and Connor McDavid together in the long term, so I’d let Leon start earning that $8.5M per season by shifting him to center ASAP.
Currently, the trio of McDavid, Draisaitl, and Maroon is one of the most potent NHL scoring lines. Honestly, when Draisaitl does eventually get taken off of this line, it doesn’t really matter who replaces him for the purposes of this list. McDavid’s line—regardless of wingers—will always be one of the strongest in the league. It’s that “generational talent” effect I spoke about in relation to Crosby above.
8 Worst: Sven Andrighetto, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen - Colorado Avalanche
Honestly, when I look at this trio I do see it as promising, but to call it a first line in the NHL is certainly a stretch at this point. Sven Andrighetto doesn’t belong anywhere near a first line in this league; Mikko Rantanen could one day become a first-line caliber player, but right now he is in his second year in the NHL, likely just hoping to avoid a sophomore slump.
Nathan MacKinnon has shown in the past that he is indeed capable of first line duty, but if we use his most recent seasons as the measuring stick, it’s easy to see that maybe he’s not a sure thing up there. Yes, the Avalanche were historically terrible in 2016-17, and surely that contributed to his low point total (53). But if he plays all season with Andrighetto and Rantanen, it’s possible we sees similar totals in 2017-18.
7 Best: Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jakub Vrana - Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin has thoroughly silenced his critics. After a measly 33 goal year last season, fans were adamant that the Great 8 had lost some of his magic touch. “He’ll never score 50 again” was a common sentiment. Well, as I write this, the Russian sniper is on pace for well over 50. I think it’s safe to say he has the talent to get to 50 again.
Add Evgeny Kuznetsov to his line, and you have one of the most potent first lines in the NHL. Jakub Vrana is an up-and-comer who definitely can’t carry a top unit on his own, but if tethered to Ovy and Kuznetsov he should be able to survive just fine. The fact that the Caps have Niklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie manning line 1 (2.0) should scare a lot of teams this season.
6 Worst: Taylor Hall, Pavel Zacha, Jesper Bratt - New Jersey Devils
As I write this entry, the Devils are off to a strong start to their season. That said, their team shooting percentage is through the roof and impossible to sustain, and they’re also getting incredible production from players you simply can’t expect to continue to produce at this level.
Taylor Hall is a legit first-line talent, but the same cannot be said of Pavel Zacha and Jesper Bratt. The latter is certainly one of the better stories to start 2017-18 so far, but he’s on pace for 164 points and I just don’t think Bratt has what it takes to annihilate the rookie scoring record. Zacha is just starting his sophomore campaign, and unless we see a serious increase from his 24 point rookie year, he’s not really close to a first-line caliber player.
5 Best: Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov -Dallas Stars
Over the past five seasons, the duo of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin have been deadly. Adding Russian winger Alexander Radulov to the mix might actually help them out even more. Radulov returned to the NHL last year, joining the Montreal Canadiens on a one-year contract. The Habs are an offensively-challenged team, but Radulov still managed to get 54 points there.
That performance earned him a contract in Dallas, and now he’s no longer hampered with linemates like Philip Danault and Tomas Plekanec. No, now he gets to ply away on a unit with Benn and Seguin, a pair of forwards who sit 3rd and 6th overall, respectively, in total points since 2013-14. I’m just guessing here, but it’s reasonable to expect Radulov to improve on last season’s 54 point output.
4 Worst: Zack Smith, Kyle Turris, Ryan Dzingel - Ottawa Senators
The Ottawa Senators have really spread the talent out throughout the top nine, and as a result they have a very weak looking top line as of right now. An argument can be made that Kyle Turris is capable of a top line role, but Zack Smith is entering his 8th full season in the NHL, and his point totals have maxed out at 36.
Ryan Dzingel is another name you don’t really expect to find anywhere in an NHL’s top six, let alone on a top line. The 25-year-old is entering just his second full NHL season, and although his rookie season was far from poor, it was equally far from first-line caliber. Circling back to Turris, even he’s just barely first-line quality. Add it all up and you have one of the weaker top lines in the NHL.
3 Best: Vladislav Namestnikov, Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov - Tampa Bay Lightning
Most of the best lines in the NHL seem to revolve around two key pieces, and you don’t get much better in that regard than Tampa’s Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. While Stamkos has long been a golden boy in the state of Florida, Kucherov burst onto the scene more recently, and he’s now probably better that Stamkos.
Add to that equation Russian Vladislav Namestnikov, and this is a phenomenal scoring line. With Kucherov and Stamkos already being bonafide point-per-game players, I could see Namestnikov riding that train to a 60 point year. Granted, this assumes that Jon Cooper keeps this unit together. Let’s not forget that Kucherov has also had great success on a separate line with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat in the past…
2 Worst: Max Domi, Derek Stepan, Clayton Keller - Arizona Coyotes
I did like a handful of the moves the Arizona Coyotes made in the offseason, but that doesn’t mean I no longer think they have the worst top line in the NHL today. Indeed I do believe that, although it is slightly improved with the offseason addition of Derek Stepan. With the veteran center being flanked by rookie Clayton Keller and Max Domi, things are still grim in the desert.
That’s not to say there isn’t any promise at this point. But all you have to do is look at the facts in front of you to realize that Stepan has never really put up first line numbers on a consistent basis. You’ll also notice that Domi’s only proven to be a 50-point player in his two NHL seasons thus far. Keller has a lot of positive arrows, but that’s all they are right now.
1 Best: Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler - Winnipeg Jets
As I mentioned previously, most of the best lines seem to center around two star players and one extra guy who has the ability to produce with talent. This top line in Winnipeg has three of the better forwards in the game today, and that’s why it comes in as my top line in the NHL right now. It’s led by captain Blake Wheeler, a sneaky winger who puts up a sneaky amount of points, and completed with young stars Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers.
Seriously, Scheifele and Ehlers fly a bit under the radar in Winnipeg probably based solely on their geography, but they’re both capable of point-per-game seasons. Ehlers is only in his third NHL season but jumped up to 64 points in his sophomore year after putting up 38 in his rookie campaign. Scheifele finished last season with 82 points, one of seven players to break 80. This line is dangerous.