The frustrating part for Bruins fans about losing Patrice Bergeron for at least a month is the loss of the most dominant 200-foot line in hockey. David Krejci between the two feels like the natural fix, but that decision is made more complicated by the lack of a defined #3 center on the roster. This has lead to a myriad of bizarre line combinations, including seeing Joakim Nordstrom, a career left-winger, centering a Top 6 line, Colby Cave, an undrafted career minor-leaguer, between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, and completely splitting Marchand and Pastrnak and rolling out a Frankenstein-esque amalgamation of forwards in their Top 6. I decided to take a deeper look at how the Bruins have fared with different line combinations in their Top 6, and attempt to determine what the best setup they have tried it thus far.
Using the data provided by Corsica.hockey’s line tool, I gathered every line the Bruins have iced this year. As I am looking at 5-on-5 data only, and the typical limiter of 50 minutes of on-ice time together only gave me five total line combinations, I expanded the parameters and limited lines to having spent at least 10 minutes of 5-on-5 time on ice as a group. That gave me the following lines:
|Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak|
|Danton Heinen, David Krejci, Jake DeBrusk|
|Jake DeBrusk, David Krejci, Joakim Nordstrom|
|Chris Wagner, Sean Kuraly, Noel Acciari|
|Chris Wagner, Sean Kuraly, David Backes|
|Anders Bjork, David Backes, Danton Heinen|
|Anders Bjork, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Danton Heinen|
|Brad Marchand, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, David Pastrnak|
|Danton Heinen, David Krejci, David Pastrnak|
|Jake DeBrusk, David Krejci, Ryan Donato|
|Anders Bjork, Joakim Nordstrom, Chris Wagner|
|Brad Marchand, Joakim Nordstrom, Jake DeBrusk|
|Anders Bjork, David Backes, Ryan Donato|
|Brad Marchand, Colby Cave, David Pastrnak|
|Noel Acciari, Sean Kuraly, Anders Bjork|
|Anders Bjork, Joakim Nordstrom, Ryan Donato|
|Joakim Nordstrom, Colby Cave, Noel Acciari|
|Anders Bjork, Sean Kuraly, Danton Heinen|
|Joakim Nordstrom, Sean Kuraly, Noel Acciari|
|Joakim Nordstrom, Chris Wagner, Noel Acciari|
|Brad Marchand, David Krejci, David Pastrnak|
|Anders Bjork, David Krejci, David Pastrnak|
|Danton Heinen, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Noel Acciari|
|Joakim Nordstrom, David Backes, Noel Acciari|
|Ryan Donato, Sean Kuraly, David Backes|
|Brad Marchand, Sean Kuraly, David Pastrnak|
Here is a breakdown of the time on ice spent together as a line for each combination.
Of the 27 different combinations, here is what I can conclude:
When looking at the difference between each line’s expected goals for percentage and their goals for percentage (the total goals scored by the team while that line is on the ice as a percentage of all goals scored while that line is on the ice), a few things stand out. For one, Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci are really good together, but having Ryan Donato ride with them is really not a good idea. As much as Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson may eventually be a good middle 6 center, he was a decidedly BAD fit between Marchand and Pastrnak. Surprisingly, having Colby Cave in that spot instead of JFK has produced excellent results so far, bordering on the line underperforming their expected numbers.
The key to this chart is actually how the rest of the lineup should be structured based on the numbers. Chris Wagner, Sean Kuraly, and David Backes have been very good when put together as a line, and realistically should be able to handle 3rd line minutes if necessary. Wagner with Joakim Nordstrom and Anders Bjork has been an even better line in fewer minutes, but with how effective Wagner is with the Kuraly/Backes duo, I would suggest this is a place where you play Ryan Donato in the middle, heavily shelter his zone starts, and let him and Bjork learn the defensive side with Nordstrom and be available for the second powerplay unit.
This allows you to see whether or not Donato can realistically be an NHL centerman, and gives you Nordstrom as a faceoff option if Donato struggles in the dot. That leaves Danton Heinen as the 3rd member of the Krejci/DeBrusk line, which has been the best combo the Bruins have had on the second line, and it isn’t incredibly close. The trio actually is out-performing the Bergeron line in fewer minutes.
How lucky have they been? Krejci in the Bergeron spot has been extremely lucky in a small sample, so I don’t put a ton of stock into their performance. Likewise, JFK in that spot wasn’t lucky and bordered on unlucky. Again, though, Cave there is a conundrum; that grouping has outperformed their EXPECTED PDO a ton, but have a very low expected PDO, which tells me their results are RIDICULOUSLY lucky.
What about the shot differentials? I accounted for time on ice in this case, which gives a better approximation of individual impact as a line. In this case, Cave shows extremely well as a Bergeron replacement, and we see that Heinen/Krejci/DeBrusk and the original Bergeron line are both very good. Nordstrom between DeBrusk and Marchand has been decidedly bad, and putting Krejci between Marchand and Pastrnak has produced plenty of offense, but have been disastrous in terms of shot suppression. Nordstrom/Acciari/Kuraly have interesting numbers, and the Bjork/Wagner/Nordstrom line has been REALLY good. Granted, so has Wagner/Kuraly/Backes, so I think the real trick will be deciding where to slot Ryan Donato into the bottom 6. Once again, this allows for the sheltered 3rd line theory proposed above.
COOL. NUMBERS. YAY.
BUT WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
Well, let’s boil this down a bit. I think that, if the lineup is fully healthy, it should look something like this:
Marchand Bergeron Pastrnak
Heinen Krejci DeBrusk
Bjork Donato Nordstrom
Wagner Kuraly Backes
So, this presents a few questions. For one, you now have a $6 million right winger. Backes’ contract was an albatross when it was signed, and that doesn’t change now. I’d rather put him in a position where his skill set is best utilized rather than attempting to jam a square peg into a round hole. His foot speed has diminished to the point where he is no longer an effective center, and he doesn’t fit as an offensive player in the Top 9. Additionally, the third line should get almost no defensive zone starts. Focus on playing them in the offensive zone, allow Bjork and Donato to go wild and be creative, and Nordstrom is there to make sure the line isn’t a complete black hole defensively. This allows you to make sure Donato can or can’t be an NHL centerman without a ton of stress on him to produce.
But what about Bergeron not being there? Well, for now (and I can’t believe I’m saying this), I think leaving Colby Cave there for a bit wouldn’t hurt. Realistically, he isn’t an NHL scorer, so he is there to win faceoffs, be defensively responsible, screen the goaltender, and allow Marchand and Pastrnak to be magicians. This is only 5-on-5 so I would not use him in overtime (Bruce…), and he wouldn’t get a sniff on the man-advantage. This allows the other three lines to try and get rolling and find some chemistry for when the Bergeron line is fully healthy. That way, when Bergy returns, secondary scoring doesn’t return to being a massive problem for the team.