Whose Top Line is it Anyway?


With Valtteri Filppula in the fold to often serve, presumably, as the 2nd line pivot next season, many lineup projections and predictions for the Tampa Bay Lightning now focus in on the catbird seat of the Lightning lineup:  the left wing slot on the top line alongside Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis.

As two of the premier scorers in the NHL the past few seasons (no really, look, they’re the best) whoever gets to skate alongside the dynamic duo and hold on to it is likely in line for a significant bump in ice time and points, regardless of that player’s own personal contributions.

The options for that spot aren’t exactly mysterious but the situation begs the question, which Connor Andrews recently prompted us via Twitter, as to who deserves to fill it:

 

Contenders

1. Alex Killorn

Killorn you may recall spent some time on the top line with Stamkos and St. Louis towards the end of the 2013 season with Jon Cooper on board as the head coach and the Lightning’s playoff hopes already dashed. He performed admirably there, filling the “worker” role that fills out a line with an elite playmaker and elite sniper quite nicely. His penchant for retrieving pucks and ability to transition from offense to defense and back again makes him an extremely valuable player, particularly when paired with more offense-first players like Stamkos and St. Louis.

Here’s the corresponding WOWY data (note: all of which is based on 5v5 time only), credit to Hockey Analysis for all the numbers:

Alex Killorn - Steven Stamkos 2012-2013 WOWY

 
With Stamkos
Stamkos Alone
Killorn Alone
Differential
TOI97:59687:38256:12N/A
Corsi For %55.849.148.0+6.7
Goals For %36.451.540.9-15.1

Alex Killorn - Martin St. Louis 2012-2013 WOWY

 
With St. Louis
St. Louis Alone
Killorn Alone
Differential
Time On Ice126:40668:42227:31N/A
Corsi For %49.547.750.0+1.8
Goals For %42.954.536.8-11.6

As you can see, Killorn spent a very small amount of 5v5 time with either Stamkos (about 98 minutes) or St. Louis (126 minutes). So while our collective memories may tell us Killorn played a lot of games there and performed well, the numbers don’t really bear that out. This is an exceedingly small sample size and therefore drawing meaningful conclusions from that data here is difficult to do. That said, what we are seeing is that Killorn, when on the top line, marginally improved Stamkos’ and St. Louis’ ability to control the puck, as both player’s Corsi For % went up when they were skating with Killorn.

A little puzzling though is how drastically their Goals For % dropped with Killorn, seemingly negating the shot differential boon. This may partly be due to the sample size, as a line generating 50-55% of the shot attempts certainly shouldn’t be scoring only 36-42% of the goals, especially not with elite talents like Stamkos and St. Louis on the line. We can chalk this up either to the sample size or bad luck, and shouldn’t really hold it against Killorn as a potential top line left wing.

2. Teddy Purcell

After injuries decimated the 2011-2012 Tampa Bay Lightning lineup, then head coach Guy Boucher was forced into a rather unpleasant situation with his roster. With the second line essentially gone (both Vincent Lecavalier and Ryan Malone out for extended periods), he was forced to move Teddy Purcell up and put all of his offensive eggs in one goal-scoring basket, loading up with Stamkos between Purcell and St. Louis.

That time on the top line helped boost Purcell’s point totals that season (65 points in 81 games, a career high) and was a big reason for his 3-year, 13.5 million dollar extension that begins this year.

Purcell proved that he could not only keep up with, but contribute on the top line, and proved he was more than just a pure playmaker potting 24 goals that season.

Here’s Purcell’s WOWY data with the top line (note this data includes three seasons, 2010-2013):

Teddy Purcell - Steven Stamkos 2010-2013 WOWY

 
With Stamkos
Stamkos Alone
Purcell Alone
Differential
Time On Ice994:592322:021551:37N/A
Corsi For %50.050.351.3-0.3
Goals For %54.256.758.5-2.5

Teddy Purcell - Martin St. Louis 2010-2013 WOWY

 
With St. Louis
St. Louis Alone
Purcell Alone
Differential
Time On Ice640:042715:061906:32N/A
Corsi For %48.648.551.5+0.1
Goals For %54.454.557.4-0.1

With a much larger sample size, we can see pretty clearly that while Purcell does fill in the top-line nicely, all three players actually play better without each other. Stamkos-St. Louis have a higher Corsi For % and Goals For % without Purcell, and Purcell’s are higher away from Stamkos and St. Louis. This is certainly some evidence to suggest that Purcell ought to start out alongside Filppula instead.

3. Jonathan Drouin

Drouin, as an NHL rookie, obviously lacks any of the requisite WOWY data, so any analysis about his future performance with Stamkos and St. Louis is purely speculative. That said, his tremendous puck-handling skills, on-ice vision, and playmaking ability seem destined to pair long-term with Stamkos. So while easing him into the NHL (assuming he makes the big club, and I believe he will) with a more defensively responsible centerman like Filppula makes sense, it might be smarter to start building chemistry between what will hopefully be the team’s two offensive dynamos for the next five (ten? longer?) years.

Conclusion

Purcell, as noted above, and 91-26 actually perform better without each other, so he’s likely out. Killorn did well in his short stint as the top line left wing, but at the very least, it seems foolish to not at least try Drouin out on the top line. He gets 9 games before GM Steve Yzerman has to decide whether to keep him in the NHL or send him back to Halifax of the QMJHL, and putting him with the bottom six or with defensive centerman Valtteri Filppula seems like a waste of talent. Eventually, if Drouin sticks past the 9-game tryout, spreading out the scoring may be an attactive option, but why not see what you have first?

Putting Drouin in the top line likely leaves the other two contenders here (Killorn and Purcell) to flank Filppula on a formidable, two-way 2nd line that would be capable of  playing against very tough competition and still chipping in meaningful secondary scoring. Killorn, who is certainly not shy when it comes to shooting the puck, would likely still thrive alongside pass-first forwards Filppula and Purcell, and his defensive instincts would likely pair well with Filppula if the goal is to make a truly two-way line that can handle tough assignments instead of leaving them all to Nate Thompson and BJ Crombeen as has been the way of the past.

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