Should the San Jose Sharks break up their top line?
It’s something that Erik Fowle suggested three weeks ago:
It’s not a knock on the Evander Kane-Logan Couture-Kevin Labanc line. There’s a reason why Bob Boughner has leaned on the trio so much – per Evolving Hockey, at 314.23 minutes, they’re one of just five lines that have played more than 300 5-on-5 minutes together.
The other four trios besides Kane-Couture-Labanc? Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Bryan Rust (349.05), Jonathan Marchessault-William Karlsson-Reilly Smith (333.78), Carl Hagelin-Nic Dowd-Garnet Hathaway (322.57), and Gabriel Landeskog-Nathan MacKinnon-Mikko Rantanen (321.9).
Instead, Fowle’s idea is rooted in the idea that the San Jose Sharks should balance their lines, spread the wealth. So perhaps, as Erik suggested, keep Kane-Couture together, pair Labanc with Dylan Gambrell to give the third line a legitimate offensive threat. This type of line construction can also pave a runway for younger Sharks to succeed: Kane-Couture can help a more inexperienced skill forward blossom, while Labanc-Gambrell could provide a security blanket for another younger forward.
In principle, it’s a sound idea. Naturally, the San Jose Sharks head coach has thought about it too.
“I’ve thought many times of separating them,” Boughner acknowledged last night, after San Jose’s 4-3 shootout victory over Minnesota.
But he also offered a reason for keeping them together: “For me, they got to play against the top lines every night. Their details defensively have got to be just as solid [as offensively].”
Essentially, they’re the Sharks’ top offensive and defensive line.
Look at it from Boughner’s perspective: You’re trying to win games. You’re trying to make the playoffs – you’re six points out with just 22 games to go, but you also have seven straight games with cellar-dwelling Anaheim and bubble team Los Angeles coming up. Stranger things have happened. You’ve found an all-purpose line that can play any way, defend anywhere – essentially, for 15 minutes or so a night at 5-on-5, you have some peace of mind, no matter who Kane-Couture-Labanc are playing.
Labanc is well aware of the weight that his line is carrying: “We have to make sure that we’re contributing every night because we’re the top line on the team. Coaches expect that type of responsibility from us.”
Per Evolving Hockey, here are some of their underlying numbers, presented without context. Purely based on their results, Kane-Couture-Labanc are above-average offensively (Goals For Per 60), below-average defensively (Goals Against Per 60), making for an averagish top line (Expected Goals %). That, of course, is a very uncritical look.
|Player 1||Player 2||Player 3||TOI||GF%||CF%||xGF%||GF/60||GA/60|
|Bryan Rust||Jake Guentzel||Sidney Crosby||349.05||64||53.77||53.98||2.75||1.55|
|Jonathan Marchessault||Reilly Smith||William Karlsson||333.78||59.26||56.94||53.09||2.88||1.98|
|Carl Hagelin||Garnet Hathaway||Nic Dowd||322.57||52.17||49.81||56.23||2.23||2.05|
|Gabriel Landeskog||Mikko Rantanen||Nathan MacKinnon||321.9||71.88||65.17||65.66||4.29||1.68|
|Evander Kane||Kevin Labanc||Logan Couture||314.23||48.65||52.14||53.07||3.44||3.63|
|Alex Iafallo||Anze Kopitar||Dustin Brown||299.68||54.55||56.92||55.46||2.4||2|
|Alex Debrincat||Patrick Kane||Pius Suter||285.15||67.86||51.74||50.8||4||1.89|
|Chandler Stephenson||Mark Stone||Max Pacioretty||281.55||65.79||54.28||55.78||5.33||2.77|
|Alex Wennberg||Jonathan Huberdeau||Patric Hornqvist||267.17||45.45||54.04||50.26||3.37||4.04|
|Cal Clutterbuck||Casey Cizikas||Matt Martin||255.98||57.14||44.68||52.55||2.81||2.11|
|Dominik Kahun||Kailer Yamamoto||Leon Draisaitl||251.18||57.89||47.16||42.26||2.63||1.91|
|Brad Marchand||David Pastrnak||Patrice Bergeron||235.53||68||64.55||57.7||4.33||2.04|
|Connor McDavid||Jesse Puljujarvi||Ryan Nugent-Hopkins||229.68||46.15||55.6||61.46||3.13||3.66|
|Aleksander Barkov||Anthony Duclair||Carter Verhaeghe||227.5||63.64||61.9||70.05||3.69||2.11|
|Adam Lowry||Andrew Copp||Mason Appleton||225.83||43.75||41.09||41.25||1.86||2.39|
|Auston Matthews||Mitch Marner||Zach Hyman||224.32||64||50.72||61.72||4.28||2.41|
|Jonathan Drouin||Josh Anderson||Nick Suzuki||224.08||50||54.66||58.98||2.95||2.95|
|Anders Lee||Jordan Eberle||Mathew Barzal||223.98||66.67||58.68||64.58||4.29||2.14|
|Brendan Gallagher||Phillip Danault||Tomas Tatar||222.07||82.35||61.63||67.79||3.78||0.81|
|Anthony Beauvillier||Brock Nelson||Josh Bailey||212.57||88.89||51.71||63.86||2.26||0.28|
|Blake Wheeler||Mark Scheifele||Paul Stastny||207.97||50||46.68||47.07||2.6||2.6|
|Colin White (C)||Evgeny Dadonov||Nick Paul||204.7||47.37||56.92||48.55||2.64||2.93|
|Dillon Dube||Elias Lindholm||Matthew Tkachuk||203.33||72.73||51.27||44.15||4.72||1.77|
|Andre Burakovsky||Brandon Saad||Nazem Kadri||201.67||66.67||59.32||66.11||2.98||1.49|
So here’s some context: It’s impressive that the Couture line has been as productive as they’ve been, considering their challenging Defensive Zone Faceoff %.
While Evolving Hockey doesn’t feature that stat by line, you can get a sense just by looking at the specific centerman’s DZ FO %. Just six centers have played over 200+ minutes at 5-on-5 with the same linemates – and have a 35 percent-or-harder individual DZ FO %. DZ FO %, by the way, means the percentage of Defensive Zone Faceoffs that a player takes as opposed to any other zones, so the higher your number, the more backed up you start on the ice.
|Colin White (C)||OTT||38.78|
Of these half-dozen pivots, only Couture and Phillip Danault center a line that averages more than three Goals Per 60 at 5-on-5. So what does this suggest? That the Couture line is starting from one end of ice and trying to get to the other end more than other heavily-used lines – and succeeding at it.
All said, this isn’t an argument for keeping together or breaking apart the Couture line. It’s just an illustration of the work that they’re doing.
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