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Evaluating Hockey’s Best Lines - Where Do Bertuzzi-Larkin-Mantha Fit In?

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NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Minnesota Wild Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Note: This article was written prior to the 04/04/2019 games.

As another playoff-less Red Wings’ season comes to a close, one bright spot has emerged. Over the last six games, Tyler Bertuzzi, Dylan Larkin, and Anthony Mantha have combined to score 17 of Detroit’s 24 goals (70.8 percent) en route to a six-game winning streak. Their electrifying play has generated excitement among the fans not seen since the words “Arizona selects Barrett Hayton” were uttered this past summer. Heading into next season, it seems like the Wings finally have a legitimate top line. Just how good is the “MLB line”, and more importantly, is it in the Wings best interest to play them together?

Using Micah McCurdy’s “threat”, which is a measure of shot rates from a given area weighted by historical shooting percentage, relative to league average, we can get an assessment of the shot rates for and against the Red Wings with Bertuzzi-Larkin-Mantha on the ice.

via hockeyviz.com

Based on the definition of “threat”, the “MLB” line would score goals 35 percent faster than the league average assuming that all shots were taken by league average shooters on league average goaltenders. Their threat of 35 percent is the 9th highest threat among forward lines that have played at least 150 minutes at 5v5 this season. Now given the talent of the players on this line, they’ve actually scored on 8.7 percent of their unblocked shots, a rate that’s 50 percent higher than the league average of 5.8 percent. It’s unlikely that they maintain a rate that high, but if they continue to generate the same caliber of shots, it’s likely that their percentage remains above the league average.

Defensively, the MLB line has not dominated to the same degree. Based on threat, they are at the league average. Thus far, opposing teams are shooting 6.7 percent on unblocked shots against the Wings, a rate that is above the league average but well below MLB’s conversion rate. Putting it all together, we can plot the offensive threat versus the defensive threat for all forward lines with at least as much ice time as the MLB line (>150 mins).

The vertical and horizontal lines represent the league median offensive threat (+10 percent) and defensive threat (-1 percent). The color of the dot is shaded to represent the number of minutes that line has played together this year. More than half of the lines in this sample played between 150-250 minutes together, and only ten played >500 minutes. Based on this plot, one could make the argument that the MLB line is one of the most dangerous offensive lines in the league although they have one of the smallest sample sizes. While they’re 9th in offensive threat, they are 58th in defensive threat, and 18th in “net” threat. Taking the fact that this was their first extended period of time playing together and that all of them have less than four years of experience in the league, one can be cautiously optimistic that they improve upon these numbers. One can always dream that they come to have the impact that the Pavel Datsyuk-Henrik Zetterberg-Tomas Holmstrom line had in 2007-2008

Image via hockeyviz.com
Image via hockeyviz.com

It’s clear that the MLB line is an effective line and arguably one of the top in the league. However, unlike some of the other teams on this list, the question remains as to whether the Wings can afford to play them together. In 2007-2008, the Wings could afford to play Datsyuk and Zetterberg together because they had excellent secondary scoring from Valtteri Filppula, Dan Cleary, Jiri Hudler, Johan Franzen, and Mikael Samuelsson. This season, Toronto can play Auston Matthews and William Nylander together (if they actually choose to) because they have John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and others scoring behind them. Same thing in Montreal with Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher as they have Jesper Kotkaniemi, Max Domi, Paul Byron, and Jonathan Drouin scoring behind them. That’s not exactly the case for the Wings, at least recently.

During their six-game win streak, the Wings had a 5v5 Corsi For percentage of 58.6 percent with the MLB line on the ice but that dropped to 40.5 percent with them off the ice. It’s worked out for them thus far as the MLB line has scored 8 goals on 50 shots on goal (16 percent) at 5v5 in those six games and the rest of the team has salvaged a +1 goal differential despite the large shot disparity. The MLB’s offensive threat is high but not that high. When their shooting percentage finally falls back to earth, I imagine you’ll see a team that controls the MLB’s 15 minutes a night but doesn’t “win” them by the same margin and then struggles mightily in the 35 minutes they aren’t on the ice. Andreas Athanasiou and Taro Hirose have provided a little bit of a spark of late but they’ve struggled to keep their line afloat from a shot differential perspective. Aside from them, there’s no one else on Detroit that’s been able to consistently provide secondary scoring.

At the end of the day, I think the Wings need more scoring depth to be entirely comfortable deploying the MLB line freely. Yes, they’ve proven to be a dominant offensive line (small sample alert) but their shooting percentage is due to regress and I’m just not sure that line has enough help to get by if they aren’t putting up 2-3 goals a night - for now. Maybe Joe Veleno and Filip Zadina joining the big leagues next year provides enough scoring depth. More likely, Detroit’s still a couple of pieces away. Perhaps the best course of action is to spread them throughout the lineup and save the combination for specific situations. As the Wings secondary scoring depth dwindled in the early 2010’s, the Wings were forced to separate Datsyuk and Zetterberg in order to boost other lines. However, whenever the Wings were in desperate need of a goal, there went Datsyuk and Zetterberg over the boards together. Perhaps that’s the best course of action, at least for the time being.

Data via hockeyviz.com, NaturalStatTrick.com, and MoneyPuck.com