We need to stop calling Vegas’ first line the “best” in hockey

It’s just not. Sorry.

We’ve said it. Sheng’s said it. Jesse’s said it. Sin Bin’s said it. Countless people on Twitter have echoed this notion, with late November being the first moment I could find.

Unfortunately, it’s wrong.

This is not to take away from the magnificent, unforeseen success of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. Rather, this is an effort to add a dash of realism more than a month following the conclusion to a distinctly unreal season.

Seventy-nine lines played over 200 minutes together at 5-on-5 last year. Here’s how Vegas’ big three fits in:

Not the best first line in hockey

StatisticVegas 1L Rank
Pen. Diff73rd

Perusing the table, we see a team with shot metrics and expected goal data that would put them as one of the league’s weaker first lines. Their goals-for percentage is certainly more rosy, but that still does not sneak them into the top third. Sure, they played a ton, but size doesn’t necessarily matter—it’s more so what you do with it.

The Lady Byng Memorial Trophy be damned; this line had a brutal penalty differential at -9, tied with a Florida Panthers line that featured Micheal Haley (212 PIMs).

There is one area where they are in fact the best: plus-minus. Of all the box score stats, this is the one most have dismissed, especially in the online community. While it theoretically captures positive and negative contributions to a team, it is rife with issues.

A look at year-by-year leaderboards adroitly paints the picture. David Savard and Brooks Orpik were top-five in plus-minus in 2016-17. Jason Garrison has more top-10 finishes than Patrick Kane, Erik Karlsson, Vincent Lecavalier, Evgeni Malkin and Patrick Marleau combined.

While it is more descriptive for a group rather than an individual, a good or bad defense can make or break this number, as can a goaltender. Few goaltenders dominated the 2017-18 campaign quite like Marc-Andre Fleury.

Karlsson’s shooting percentage is a big part of the line’s success as well. It’s also wholly unsustainable. If Alex Ovechkin, the generation’s premier sharpshooter, converted at a 23.4% clip for his career, he would have 1,146 goals. But extrapolating to a whole career is crazy, so let’s just look at one season. Shooting like Wild Bill, the Great Eight would have posted 124 goals in the 2008-09 campaign and Phil Esposito would have had 129 in 1970-71.

Here are nine lines that could (or rather, should) be considered better than that of Vegas:

Brad Marchand - Patrice Bergeron - David Pastrnak (Boston Bruins): 6th in CF%, T-8th in penalty differential

Kevin Fiala - Kyle Turris - Craig Smith (Nashville Predators): 5th in Relative CF%, 4th in GF%

Jaden Schwartz - Brayden Schenn - Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis Blues): 3rd in CF%, 9th in xGF%

“3M” Matthew Tkachuk - Mikael Backlund - Michael Frolik (Calgary Flames): 1st in Corsi differential (+228!), 2nd in CF/60 and CA/60 among 16 lines with at least 500 minutes played

Jason Zucker - Mikko Koivu - Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild): 1st in xGF%, 12th in SA/60

Travis Konecny - Sean Couturier - Claude Giroux (Philadelphia Flyers): 11th in Relative xGF%, 6th in FA/60

Artemi Panarin - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Cam Atkinson (Columbus Blue Jackets): 6th in Relative GF%, 3rd in penalty differential

Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust (Pittsburgh Penguins): 7th in CF%, T-5th in xGF%

Evgenii Dadonov - Aleksander Barkov - Nick Bjugstad (Florida Panthers): 2nd in Relative xGF%, 1st in penalty differential

Notably absent is the Vladislav Namestnikov - Steven Stamkos - Nikita Kucherov line that seemed to be the league’s most ferocious threesome. Their numbers, in actuality, were just alright. They ranked 46th in relative Corsi, 49th in Goals For Percentage and 69th in Relative Goals For Percentage. Not nice. Also indicative that perception is far from reality.

Here’s the thing about the Vegas first line: they don’t have to be the best. It’s okay! Buying into the notion that the first line was what drove their head-scratching success belies what really got Vegas engine going: great goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury and excellent depth. Just look at the patchwork defensive corps for a prime example of that. A year ago, a blue line of Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore, Deryk Engelland, Colin Miller and Luca Sbisa (or Brad Hunt or Jon Merrill) would likely have been considered among the league’s worst (28th as per The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn).

It is then very crucial to temper expectations for the coming year. Vegas’ top line will likely not be the best first line, or even in the top half of first lines. Karlsson won’t score 40, Marchessault probably won’t flirt with point-per-game status and Smith...well he might be just slightly worse.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Two-thirds of this line are locked up until at least the 2021-22 season, and Karlsson is likely to ink a deal sooner rather than later.

Having a fine second line anchored by Paul Stastny and a bottom-six that excels at what they do (yes, even with Cody Eakin and Ryan Reaves starting and making over $6.5 million combined, no less) will be the keys to Vegas getting back into the postseason in 2018-19.

Hey, even Washington’s eventual top line of Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson were well in the bottom third of CF% and xGF% and they won the Stanley Cup!

Too soon?

All statistics courtesy of Corsica.Hockey.