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It’s the kind of question that makes for great water-cooler conversation, or in the case of the Winnipeg Jets, locker-room banter: what’s the best line going right now in the NHL?
A strong case can be made that the local club and its fans will get an up-close view later this week when the high-scoring Colorado Avalanche come to town. Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog sat first, third and eighth, respectively, in overall league scoring entering play Tuesday night, combining for 27 goals and 36 assists through 14 regular-season games.
That’s heady stuff, and the kind of production that can drive a team to major success. Colorado is 7-4-3 so far and sits second overall in the NHL, averaging 3.71 goals per game.
“The numbers would say they are,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said Tuesday in response to the best line question. “They are dynamic. (MacKinnon) is such an incredible athlete. They’ve got some grit on the line, some good size, just incredible speed and playmaking. So they’re dangerous in very close areas because of their strength. They can play right around your net and make plays, but boy, an awful lot of the damage they’ve done are straight lines and just beating you up the ice.”
Defenceman Josh Morrissey routinely studies the top trios in the league, since he and partner Jacob Trouba usually get the tough assignments of trying to shut them down. Hosting the Avalanche Friday at Bell MTS Place, which will be the 8-5-1 Jets’ first game in seven days since the Helsinki trip, will likely give them all they can handle.
“Every top line in the league seems to be outstanding nowadays. There’s so many good players, so many quick guys, so many guys with different attributes, but definitely this line has those players and they’re feeling it right now,” Morrissey said following a 75-minute practice at Bell MTS Iceplex.
“They’re a line that has a bit of everything. Obviously, they work off each other really well. They’re fast, they play fast. Their transition game is really strong and they play a real speed-emphasis game. (MacKinnon) is outstanding. And Landeskog and Rantanen really work off him well. They can kind of beat you on the rush, because they all can skate, but then they can also make good plays down low and beat you down low.”
As Morrissey said, there are many other great lines, as well. The list of top contenders so far this season would include whoever Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby happen to be playing with on a given night, along with high-scoring combos such as Bergeron-Marchand-Pasternak in Boston, Eichel-Skinner-Pominville in Buffalo and Monahan-Gaudreau-Lindholm in Calgary, to name just a few.
Which begs another question: weren’t the Jets supposed to have one of the top lines in the NHL?
It certainly looked that way when the season began, with Mark Scheifele in his familiar place between Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor, but Maurice has taken the blender out of the cupboard in an effort to get all his lines going. Patrik Laine was given a brief look in Connor’s place, followed more recently by Nikolaj Ehlers on that left wing.
And while those players have put up points on the power play, they haven’t been nearly as noticeable at five-on-five. Scheifele, Wheeler and Ehlers have a combined 10 goals and 24 assists between them. And the Jets, as a team, are just 21st in the NHL, averaging 2.93 goals per game.
“It’s been OK, it hasn’t been great,” Ehlers said Tuesday when asked for his assessment of their play together. “I think it’s getting better. We’re working hard. We’re trying to get pucks to the net. And we get zone time. I think we’re playing well but I also know there’s definitely another level.”
Perhaps facing off against MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog will provide a little extra motivation to be at their best.
“They don’t look too bad. They’ve got some really smart players, MacKinnon is fast, can move really well. Rantanen is a big, strong guy. And the same with Landeskog,” said Ehlers, who scored his second goal of the season last Friday against Florida.
“Everybody in here knows we can do better than we’re doing right now. Once we all buy into that and play the way we need to, we’ve got one hell of a team. I’m really excited and we need to get there. We’re 14 games into the season now. It’s not the beginning of the season anymore.”
Scheifele, who has six goals and seven assists to date, isn’t surprised to see the Avalanche stars leading the way.
“They’ve got a lot of skill, they do it all. They play a 200-foot game and they make a lot of plays in the O-zone. So they’re a fun line to watch. It’ll be fun to play against them,” he said.
“It’s like anything, you have to continue to grow, you can’t continue to play the same way. You see with that Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen line, they keep getting better and better. And that’s what you have to do in this league. You have to continue to push for more and push to become a better hockey player yourself and a better line. And that comes with a lot of hard work.”
Maurice said being a No. 1 line isn’t always just about putting up points, and he believes the Scheifele-Wheeler-Ehlers trio is rounding into form.
“I don’t worry about them and what they’re going to produce. I think our whole offensive numbers will start coming. Our shooting percentage is low, but the way we track it, zone time, expected goals, things like that, in our last five games we like where that’s trending. But they’re capable of dominating on both sides of the puck,” he said.
And, perhaps, working their way back into the debate about top NHL trios.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.