Finding that key rhythm requires more than just penciling in the lines. Oftentimes, the best line combination on paper doesn't yield results in the NHL and more than occasionally a line combination we never foresaw is blockbuster on the ice.
There are more than a few situations that are still evolving and worth more than a cursory look at.
Take the Edmonton Oilers as a fantastic example of combinations.
The Oilers played the first five games of the season with Connor McDavid, Evander Kane and Kailer Yamamoto as the top line, with Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman as the second line. Following a 2-0 shutout loss to the Blues on Oct. 22, the Oilers swapped their centers: Putting McDavid with RNH and Hyman, while Draisaitl has been with Kane and Yamamoto.
The results speak for themselves when it comes to the argument for making changes.
McDavid with Kane and Yamamoto: 42 minutes at five-on-five, one goal (one against) and 55.3% Corsi.
McDavid with RNH and Hyman: 33 minutes at five-on-five, six goals (two against), 58.0% Corsi.
Draisaitl with RNH and Hyman: 31 minutes at five-on-five, one goal (one against), 47.1% Corsi.
Draisaitl with Kane and Yamamoto: 42 minutes at five-on-five, four goals (zero against), 52.6% Corsi.
To recap: Those top lines for the first five games combined for two goals at five-on-five and allowed two against. In the four games since the swap, they've combined for 10 goals at five-on-five and two against.
The fantasy fallout from such a change is huge. Kane loses his top-50 upside and Yamamoto becomes droppable, while Hyman leaps to must-start territory and RNH gains that top-50 upside.
Elias Lindholm, Jonathan Huberdeau and Tyler Toffoli have not been good enough through almost 56 minutes at five-on-five. Even if you consider they've surely had bad luck in scoring zero goals as a unit at even strength, their expected goals per 60 minutes (2.58) ranks 46th among lines that have played a minimum of 40 minutes together this season (per MoneyPuck.com). The fact that we have a direct comparison of Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau forming the best line in the NHL last season makes those stale numbers stark.
It looks like the team is considering demoting both Lindholm and Toffoli based on practice on Monday. Nazem Kadri and Andrew Mangiapane were joined by Huberdeau, while Lindholm and Toffoli skated with Milan Lucic. This could be huge for Mangiapane, who earned some fantasy notice with his scoring outburst last season but wasn't being looked at to continue such a pace.
Opening the season with Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk on separate lines wasn't hitting the same high notes for the Panthers as Barkov and Huberdeau on separate lines did last season. At five-on-five, Tkachuk's line was scoring enough but also getting scored on a lot, while Barkov's line just wasn't scoring enough. The Panthers top-scoring even-strength line so far has been Anton Lundell's third line, with six goals and only one against in almost 66 minutes of action.
They've already done it. Tkachuk and Barkov have been playing together now for almost three full games. And the results are what you might expect -- five goals in only 26 minutes with just one against. Carter Verhaeghe is the fantasy benefactor of the union, as he's the third member of the line. This may or may not be a long-term plan for the Panthers, as there is an argument that more boats would be lifted by them playing on separate lines. And, to be fair, Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett aren't super appealing on a second line with Rudolfs Balcers.
The Islanders started the campaign with Mathew Barzal signing a huge contract to become the offensive lynchpin for the foreseeable future. But between Zach Parise and Kyle Palmieri, the goals weren't coming. They played 34 minutes together and scored one goal at five-on-five.
Hopefully the Isles stick with the Barzal combo they've used for the past three games. With Josh Bailey and Oliver Wahlstrom, Barzal's line has scored four goals and allowed zero in 31 minutes. Wahlstrom has the profile of a potential breakout (great fantasy points per 60 minutes going back to last season) if he gets the ice time -- and skating next to the team's offensive catalyst seems like a great way to get ice time.
The Canucks are still figuring this thing out. They've probably assembled more line combinations than any other team this season -- at the very least they hold that title for the top six. You name the combo, the Canucks have surely tried it. Luckily, Elias Pettersson seems to be funk-proof now, while J.T. Miller and Bo Horvat are saved by the power play when it comes to fantasy. But at even strength, the results are troubling. Even the recent combo of Miller, Horvat and Conor Garland has posted just a 37% Corsi in two full games together.
On the positive side, the line of Pettersson, Andrei Kuzmenko and Ilya Mikheyev is scoring (three goals for, one against), but doesn't have a much better possession ratio (40% Corsi). We will probably see more tinkering to come as the Canucks seek the right trios to stabilize the top six.
This team's power play is masking some pretty troubling stats at five-on-five. In 95 minutes together already, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Artturi Lehkonen have combined on one goal. In fact, the Avalanche are dead last in the NHL for five-on-five scoring this season with 1.2 goals per game. That's right. Dead last.
Gabriel Landeskog returning healthy is still a long way off, too. The Avs do have one combination that has been dominant at five-on-five, as MacKinnon, Rantanen and Valeri Nichushkin have played 13 minutes together and scored two goals. But using that combination leaves the Avs woefully short on offense down the rest of the lineup. Maybe the power play is good enough that they can limp through until Landeskog is back. But a better solution would be for the Avs to make some changes and find a line that can start connecting at even strength. We'll have to see what happens in Finland this week.
Speaking of games in Finland, the Blue Jackets aren't doing much better than the Avs at five-on-five. Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine have played 24 minutes with Boone Jenner for one goal and 21 minutes with Jack Roslovic with one goal. The team's best line at even strength has been Roslovic, Gustav Nyquist and Kent Johnson, with four goals in 42 minutes and only one goal against. Unlike the Avs, however, the Blue Jackets have nothing to mask it; they are the only NHL team without a power-play goal this season.
With the established talent of Gaudreau and Laine, however, there is a combination here that will find success. Maybe the Blue Jackets will be more willing to consider some edge cases for the lines. Cole Sillinger or Johnson with a shot at the big two? At the very least, Jenner should be moved back to the top line. When he is with Laine and Gaudreau, they post a pretty dominant possession ratio (73.2% Corsi).
There is nothing wrong with the Stars top line. Roope Hintz, Jason Robertson and Joe Pavelski have the most five-on-five goals in the league so far (eight). But the team still needs to establish the second line. Tyler Seguin and Mason Marchment are the mainstays, and they've played half the games with Ty Dellandrea and half with Denis Gurianov. They have one goal with each and a sub-50% Corsi with both.
The Senators are included here just to highlight that Shane Pinto could be a revelation with his new role. Already with six goals and 2.1 fantasy points per game from his third-line role, Pinto is getting a shot to replace the injured Josh Norris on the second line with Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux. This line (with Norris and short-term replacement Derick Brassard) has managed five goals and only allowed one at five-on-five this season.