First Line Forwards On Good/Bad Teams

Jonathan Willis
August 14 2009 06:00AM

Yesterday, I posted an article on the point production of first-line forwards. In it, I showed that an NHL-average first liner put up 66 points last season, while a player with 51 points was still producing at a first line rate.

However, a couple of commenters raised the question: don’t good teams generally get more points out of their first-line players?

First, from The Menace:

Technically there are 30 first lines in the league, but it would be interesting to see if those Midpoint/Cutoff numbers are significantly different for just the 16 playoff teams.

Second, from Traktor:

Jonathan is becoming way to predictable. Just looking for ways to justify mediocrity. Here’s an idea: Why don’t you look at the 1st line production of teams who actually have success. A 51 point first line player is a recipe for a top 10 draft pick.

Traktor’s point is, I’m fairly sure, incorrect. Certainly, a team with two or three first-liners down in the fifty point range will struggle, but I think pretty much any team can afford one guy in that range; especially if they have an average player (65 points) and a top-20 player (85 points) along-side (for an average of 67 points).

I decided to calculate the average point total for each team’s top-three forwards and compare it to how many points each team put up. Here’s what that chart looks like:

image0011

Some notes on the chart:

  • Obviously, teams with better point production from their first line – all other things being equal – will perform better, and I think we see that here, particularly in the Western Conference.
  • All alone in the bottom left-hand corner are the New York Islanders, a team that only had one forward crack 40 points: Bill Guerin, who was traded to Pittsburgh to finish off the year.
  • All alone in the bottom right-hand corner are the Atlanta Thrashers, a team that boasted a first line of Kovalchuk, Kozlov and White (240 total points, 80 on average) but still couldn’t climb the standings. They’re unusual, but not extremely so – the Ottawa Senators were a similar team, while both Atlanta and the Tampa Bay Lightning have been demonstrating for years that a potent top-three isn’t enough to have team success.

The 90-point line is pretty close to the playoff cut-off point; we see a few teams with anemic first lines (St. Louis, Columbus, Florida, the Rangers) had some success. Not a ton, but then we are looking at teams whose average first line player was putting up around 55 points.

As for Traktor’s contention, successful teams with a 50-point first-liner included Calgary, Pittsburgh and Carolina. It isn’t common, but it’s certainly possible.

And just to re-emphasize: I think Steve Tambellini was absolutely right to chase Dany Heatley. A line of Heatley, Horcoff and Hemsky would have been tremendous. In an off-year, Heatley still managed to record more than 70 points and would have nicely offset Horcoff’s offensive deficiencies (in the same manner that Horcoff would nicely offset Heatley’s defensive deficiencies).

Still, there may be another way for the Oilers to boost their top-line production.  Sam Gagner, at some point, is going to supplant Horcoff as the team's number one centre.  He may even surpass Horcoff's point totals this season.

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Jonathan Willis is Managing Editor of the Nation Network. He also currently writes for the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey, Grantland, and Hockey Prospectus. His work has appeared at theScore, ESPN and Puck Daddy. He was previously founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue. Contact him at jonathan (dot) willis (at) live (dot) ca.
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#1 99thoilerfan
August 14 2009, 06:14AM
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I agree. Dany would have been a great addition. I wish he would have agreed to play for the Oil. Tambo gave it a shot, I do not blame him at all.

Come on Dany! Come play, you double dumb ass!

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#2 humantorch
August 14 2009, 07:12AM
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99thoilerfan wrote:

I agree. Dany would have been a great addition. I wish he would have agreed to play for the Oil. Tambo gave it a shot, I do not blame him at all. Come on Dany! Come play, you double dumb ass!

Wouldn't at all surprise me to see it still happen come training camp.

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#3 scorecoff hemmercules
August 14 2009, 07:56AM
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@ humantorch:

I kinda get that feeling too. I still think that Tambo had a set deadline but the offer is never off the table, if Heatley eventually decides he would come here theres no way we say no. Tambo stating that we have given up on him was just to eleviate the pressure on our players involved in the trade IMO.

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#4 jeff
August 14 2009, 07:59AM
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??? A chart with dots?

Do you have a breakdown of who is where?

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#5 toprightcorner
August 14 2009, 08:26AM
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Not sure if this was mentioned earlier, but are the numbers you used actual point totals or points per 82 games. With injuries and such, I believe you would get a much better idea if everyone was based on points for a full season. This may not make a huge difference, but I am sure it would be noticable.

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#6 sittingatmydesk
August 14 2009, 08:31AM
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yo J-dub, do you ever sleep...., are you a machine?, popping articles like there is no tomorrow.. I wonder if wayne went to the eskimos game last night?

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#7 Ender the Dragon
August 14 2009, 08:38AM
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Any talk of Dany at this point is just so much wind. The odds of him landing in San Jose go down by the day, so it really just comes down to playing in Edmonton or playing in Ottawa for Dany. Clearly he's not uber-excited about either one, but he knows Ottawa and his management, coach, and teammates have all said they'll welcome him at camp with no hard feelings. At that point, why put yourself into a wildcard environment like Edmonton? Better the evil that you know, right?

He'll sigh a big sigh and wish that things had gone differently, but in the end he'll dress in red, black, and white this season.

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#8 Librarian Mike
August 14 2009, 08:55AM
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Ender the Dragon wrote:

Clearly he’s not uber-excited about either one, but he knows Ottawa and his management, coach, and teammates have all said they’ll welcome him at camp with no hard feelings.

Well, that's what they say. I can't wait until game 12 or something, when someone lays Heatley out with an elbow or something and the Sens don't do anything about it.

This guy has painted himself into a corner, I think.

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#9 Jonathan Willis
August 14 2009, 09:32AM
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toprightcorner wrote:

Not sure if this was mentioned earlier, but are the numbers you used actual point totals or points per 82 games. With injuries and such, I believe you would get a much better idea if everyone was based on points for a full season. This may not make a huge difference, but I am sure it would be noticable.

I used actual points. I thought this was a better contrast because the teams are only benefitting form their stars when they're in the lineup.

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#10 Lofty
August 14 2009, 09:37AM
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Librarian Mike wrote:

Well, that’s what they say. I can’t wait until game 12 or something, when someone lays Heatley out with an elbow or something and the Sens don’t do anything about it. This guy has painted himself into a corner, I think

I wish this would happen but I really doubt it. 4th line players have to earn their keep and they will stick up for Heater because they are wearing the same jersey.

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#11 Wyseguy
August 14 2009, 09:40AM
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@ Ender the Dragon: I was always a strong supporter of keeping up the effort to get Heatley, but it's been a really long time now. He wants options? A month goes by and no options.

I think the only way he comes is if Murray and Heatley call up Tambellini and offer him for less than the original deal. I know when July 1st went by, Murray wanted more, but clearly he's not going to get it, at least before the season starts.

If he grovels back to Ottawa, they've got some cap space they need to clear for him. Not sure if his no trade also includes a no movement, but if so, they can't even hide him in the minors.

At the end of the day, he would be huge for the first line, but I won't be anywhere near as enthusiastic if he does end up here.

I know the saying is nice guys finish last, but somehow I'd like to see the prick finish last. Or at least take a chunk out of his ego and realize how fortunate he is. How do guys like Gretz, Iggy, Mess, Stevie Y and Burnaby Joe get it, yet guys like Heatley still exist and their selfishness still pays off handsomly.

At least the NHL doesn't have nearly as many of these guys as the NBA and NFL.

Is it worth trying to make a lesser trade to get Gagne out of Philly? I'm sure he has a no trade too, but he's a LW that can snipe and Philly's tight with the cap (sadly not much closer than we are).

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#12 OvenChicken8
August 14 2009, 09:50AM
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Wyseguy wrote:

Not sure if his no trade also includes a no movement, but if so, they can’t even hide him in the minors.

It is a NMC. Hopefully they can find some angle to suspend him so he has to sit out this year. Meaning he'll miss the olympics and beg Tambs to allow him to come to the winter wonderland known as Edmonton.

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#13 Wyseguy
August 14 2009, 09:52AM
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OvenChicken8 wrote:

Wyseguy wrote: Not sure if his no trade also includes a no movement, but if so, they can’t even hide him in the minors. It is a NMC. Hopefully they can find some angle to suspend him so he has to sit out this year. Meaning he’ll miss the olympics and beg Tambs to allow him to come to the winter wonderland known as Edmonton.

I like the sounds of that, next step is to convince Tambo to plant a hidden camera so we can all see the begging take place

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#14 typol99
August 14 2009, 09:52AM
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OMG..i dont even want heatly on team canada...go play with germany ya trader.. fahk,,,,i hate him he aint even that sweet

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#15 OvenChicken8
August 14 2009, 10:05AM
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@ typol99: You say that now, but I bet you'd have his jersey on 5 minutes after you found out he signed :p

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#16 typol99
August 14 2009, 10:08AM
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nope afraid not..ill stick to my signed hemmer thanks.. heater is pure shitOvenChicken8 wrote:

@ typol99: You say that now, but I bet you’d have his jersey on 5 minutes after you found out he signed :p
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#17 typol99
August 14 2009, 10:09AM
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nope afraid not heater is pure sh&t ill stick to my signed hemmer thanksOvenChicken8 wrote:

@ typol99: You say that now, but I bet you’d have his jersey on 5 minutes after you found out he signed :p
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#18 forsoothed
August 14 2009, 10:09AM
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I'm not sure what conclusions you're coming to here JW, but here's what I see (personally I think you should do a linear regression through that graph, the r-squared for each would be interesting):

1.) a first line averaging 65+ pts virtually guarantees a playoff position

2.) a first line averaging 50-60 pts virtually guarantees you'll be fighting for a playoff position

Sounds like the outliers can be explained by a good first line surrounded by an especially bad team.

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#19 LowOnOil
August 14 2009, 10:11AM
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Hey JW,

Great article as always. If you 'successfully' have argued that 1 50 point 1st liner is not enough to get a good draft pic, what about the argument for 2 50 point 1st liners?

The Pittsburgh counter-argument is problematic in that they have 2 100+ point players to elevate their average. Calgary in spite of their 50 pointish 1st line player were 9th in the NHL in Goals for. Carolina's an interesting example as their GF/PK/PP stats are all fairly mediocre (16-19th). Only their GA average stands out at 8th. Maybe it's Cam Ward with his .916 SV% and 68gp that was a big factor here.

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#20 viss.99
August 14 2009, 10:18AM
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Wouldn’t at all surprise me to see it still happen come training camp.

Would you still want to have a player being forced to play for the Oilers

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#21 Oilersordeath
August 14 2009, 10:22AM
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I think if Heater does by some odd chance say F-it and says I want to play in Edm, I'd pull Cogs n Lady on the table and offer up Nillson, Shremp maybe a 2nd rounder. Whatcha all think?

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#22 Wyseguy
August 14 2009, 10:32AM
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@ Oilersordeath: even though his value is getting closer and closer to a bag of pucks, I have a hard time believing Murray would take that. Nobody wants Schremp or Nillson.

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#23 scorecoff hemmercules
August 14 2009, 10:37AM
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viss.99 wrote:

Would you still want to have a player being forced to play for the Oilers

No one is forcing him to do anything or he would already be in an oilers jersey. He always has the option of playing with his curret team over the oilers.

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#24 Oilersordeath
August 14 2009, 10:45AM
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Wyseguy wrote:

@ Oilersordeath: even though his value is getting closer and closer to a bag of pucks, I have a hard time believing Murray would take that. Nobody wants Schremp or Nillson.

I agree but I think the longer this drags out Tambo hold on Murrays balls tightens each day.

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#25 Wyseguy
August 14 2009, 10:48AM
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Oilersordeath wrote:

Wyseguy wrote: @ Oilersordeath: even though his value is getting closer and closer to a bag of pucks, I have a hard time believing Murray would take that. Nobody wants Schremp or Nillson. I agree but I think the longer this drags out Tambo hold on Murrays balls tightens each day.

I'll try my best not to picture that

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#26 Jonathan Willis
August 14 2009, 11:12AM
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@ forsoothed:

I kept it as simple as possible because I know there really isn't enough data to come to a firm conclusion without going back more years (which I may do later if I get ambitious).

It's worth noting that in the East four teams in the 65 PT+ range missed the playoffs.

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#27 I Am The Law
August 14 2009, 11:13AM
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forsoothed wrote:

I’m not sure what conclusions you’re coming to here JW, but here’s what I see (personally I think you should do a linear regression through that graph, the r-squared for each would be interesting): 1.) a first line averaging 65+ pts virtually guarantees a playoff position 2.) a first line averaging 50-60 pts virtually guarantees you’ll be fighting for a playoff position Sounds like the outliers can be explained by a good first line surrounded by an especially bad team.

The correlation for the East is about 0.5406. The correlation for the West is about 0.83101. The correlation for the entire NHL is 0.61418. The closer to 1.0 the number is, the stronger the correlation is.(these are rough calculations, so if they're wrong, please forgive me).

I think that this backs up Willis' point that you generally need a top-flight first line to be competitive in the NHL. The East, as forsoothed has said, appears to be hampered by outliers, such as Ottawa and Tampa Bay at the low end (great first line, but crappy team) and Boston at the high end (great team, no dominant first line), but even in the East, there's still a pretty strong correlation.

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#28 I Am The Law
August 14 2009, 11:15AM
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@ Jonathan Willis: If you e-mail me the lines, I'm happy to punch the data this weekend...Unlike the ones above, which I did on scrap paper, I'll actually use a program to get the correlations bang-on...

And if you don't e-mail me the lines, I might just do it anyways. I love this idea!

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#29 bbop
August 14 2009, 11:33AM
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Salary cap aside of the remaining free agents at forward whom do you think the Oilers are most interested in.

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#30 typol99
August 14 2009, 11:35AM
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ill trade darren puppa in his prime and a seventh rounder for dany sh&tly

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#31 The Menace
August 14 2009, 11:41AM
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Wyseguy wrote:

@ Oilersordeath: even though his value is getting closer and closer to a bag of pucks, I have a hard time believing Murray would take that. Nobody wants Schremp or Nillson.

And Penner is the key to that whole deal going through. We have to have salary going the other way.

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#32 typol99
August 14 2009, 11:41AM
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Well Tambo is looking in b-town and there is slim pickings right now..he wont do much till marchbbop wrote:

Salary cap aside of the remaining free agents at forward whom do you think the Oilers are most interested in

@ typol99:

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#33 typol99
August 14 2009, 11:49AM
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Y r u gutys so obsessed about heatly..he effn blows..effn guy aint playn 4 us so..who cares move on

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#34 typol99
August 14 2009, 11:59AM
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% penner is sooooo over paid.. i hate him the most outta every oiler....in history.. I saw him in a bar in Brandon Man.. tried talking to him he is such a stuck up prick...Im gonna fight him next time he comes back to town...

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#35 Ender the Dragon
August 14 2009, 12:07PM
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Wyseguy wrote:

even though his value is getting closer and closer to a bag of pucks, I have a hard time believing Murray would take that. Nobody wants Schremp or Nillson.

Oilersordeath wrote:

I agree but I think the longer this drags out Tambo hold on Murrays balls tightens each day.

Why on Earth would you think that? Do you think for one second that Murray ever really wanted Heatley gone? He went through the motions and made sure that everyone knew he had made all reasonable attempts to pacify his petulent star, but at the end of the day Murray will be pretty happy if Heater is lighting the lamp for the Sens and not someone else.

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#36 Jonathan Willis
August 14 2009, 12:14PM
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@ typol99:

~Yeah, because 50-goal scorers are just so easy to find.

I paid on five bucks the other day to mow my lawn. They're definitely overrated.~

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#37 The Menace
August 14 2009, 12:30PM
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@ Jonathan Willis: Great article JW - thanks for putting this together. I don't know how you find the time for all this.

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#38 Jonathan Willis
August 14 2009, 12:34PM
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@ typol99:

I'd talk to Landon Wilson before fighting Penner, if I were you.

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#39 OvenChicken8
August 14 2009, 12:37PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

@ typol99: I’d talk to Landon Wilson before fighting Penner, if I were you.

Shhhh... Let him do it, then we probably won't have to hear from him for a month while he's laid up in a hospital.

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#40 Robin Brownlee
August 15 2009, 05:29PM
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typol99 wrote:

% penner is sooooo over paid.. i hate him the most outta every oiler….in history.. I saw him in a bar in Brandon Man.. tried talking to him he is such a stuck up prick…Im gonna fight him next time he comes back to town…

You're going to fight Penner, tough guy? I'm guessing you're five-foot-10 and 165 pounds, but you'd be in the NHL just like Penner if it hadn't been for that knee injury (bruise) and the coach who screwed you over in Peewee House League, right? Your whole talk-like-a-gangsta act is lame. Imbecile.

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#41 Chris
August 15 2009, 06:41PM
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I can't help but like Penner. I like the way he stared down Scott Oake on national TV after being questioned about being scratched. I like the way he stands in front of Souray slapshots. I like the fact that he is the current Oiler iron-man... In fact, the only thing I don't like about Penner is his contract... and I don't see how That is Penners fault.

Sure I wish Penner had used his three week layoff after winning a Stanley Cup to get into all-world shape. Sure I wish he could just become a first line player (out of the blue) depite never being drafted, never playing on a first line, and never expressing a desire to be the go-to-guy. If Tambellini gave Reddox four million dollars and the spot beside Hemsky... who would you hate?

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