By carefully studying all recent Stanley Cup finals, we can try to discover the secret championship formula. The 2007 Anaheim Ducks stick out in particular, having lost only five games en route to their spectacular triumph over the Ottawa Senators in the finals. They had the hot goalie (Jean-Sebastien Giguere) and the puck-moving defensemen (Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger), but they also had one component that no other team shared -- a third line that temporarily elevated itself to elite status.
Samuel Pahlsson, Rob Niedermayer and Travis Moen combined for 24 goals, 39 assists and minus-12 in the 82-game regular season -- then recorded 15 goals, six game winners, 19 assists and plus-24 while adding 151 hits and 30 blocked shots in their 21 postseason games matched up against the league's top players. Looking at this year's playoffs, who were the most valuable third-line players in the regular season, and which of our cult heroes might we have overvalued?
Rating The Third Line
Quantifying a third-line's contributions is challenging because they come in so many different kinds and styles. You've got the grinders, the offensive-minded secondary scorers, the shut-down defensive wizards, and those who provide a little of each. Regardless of whether they're hitting, blocking shots or flying up the ice, all third-line players are ultimately tasked with improving the team's goal differential through some combination of generating friendly offense or preventing opposition scoring.
In order to find and rank the best non-top-six forwards, we'll use a rating system that uses both GVT (goals versus threshold) and each player's goal differential relative to his teammates. Essentially, we figure out the difference in plus/minus per 60 even-strength minutes between when a player is on the ice and when he's on the bench; a player with a rating of plus-1.00 somehow scores or prevents a total of 1.00 goals per 60 minutes above and beyond his teammates, and a player with a rating of minus-1.00 should be kept on the bench whenever possible.
Secondary Forward Rankings
The top third-line guys in the playoffs, listed below. Rating refers to goal differential (goals for/goals against) per 60 minutes when a player is on the ice relative to when he isn't.
Player Team Rating GVT
Jordan Staal Pittsburgh Penguins 1.00 12.4
Matt Cooke Pittsburgh Penguins 1.39 7.1
Wayne Simmonds Los Angeles Kings 1.16 9.1
Benoit Pouliot Montreal Canadiens 1.36 5.2
Manny Maholtra San Jose Sharks 1.09 6.9
Peter Regin Ottawa Senators 1.13 5.8
Scott Parse Los Angeles Kings 1.20 4.9
Eric Fehr Washington Capitals 0.47 8.9
Lee Stempniak Phoenix Coyotes 0.47 8.4
Nick Foligno Ottawa Senators 1.02 3.9
Vernon Fiddler Phoenix Coyotes 0.63 5.5
Marcel Goc Nashville Predators 0.64 5.4
Justin Williams Los Angeles Kings 0.59 5.2
Tyler Kennedy Pittsburgh Penguins 0.59 4.9
Ben Eager Chicago Blackhawks 0.69 3.2
It probably comes as no surprise that currently injured Penguins center Jordan Staal tops the list, the Selke finalist and patron saint of third lines. Where there was some dispute about a player's inclusion, I considered someone a non-top-six forward if he spent the majority of the regular season toiling away on the third or fourth lines, which allowed players like Wayne Simmonds to appear in the top 15.
The Pittsburgh-Ottawa series was a classic clash of third lines. Jordan Staal had one goal and two assists in six games -- and threw 19 hits, exceeded by the 23 thrown by teammate Matt Cooke, who also chipped in three goals and an assist. They managed to best Ottawa third-liner Nick Foligno's 16 hits and Peter Regin's six takeaways, three goals and one assist, and now the Penguins are facing the Montreal Canadiens, who upset the Washington Capitals due in no small part to the tremendous defensive efforts of Moen and Benoit Pouliot, who threw 12 hits and blocked five shots.
Los Angeles features prominently on this list, but fell to Vancouver in six games partly because secondary players like Scott Parse and Justin Williams came up a little short. It's too bad for Wayne Simmonds, who registered two goals and an assist, threw 23 hits, blocked six shots, had six takeaways, was plus-1, and was a classic example of a utility player getting the job done.
We enjoyed many other fine third-line performances from the others on this list, and all the different ways they got it done:
- Offensively, Eric Fehr had three goals, one assist and was plus-2 in Washington's losing cause, and Philadelphia tough guy Daniel Carcillo scored two goals, including a game winner, one assist and was plus-4.
- Defensively, Nashville's Marcel Goc blocked seven shots, Vernon Fiddler threw 11 hits and blocked six shots for the Phoenix Coyotes.
- Like Fiddler, San Jose's Manny Malhotra was awesome in the faceoff circle, winning 65.7 percent of the draws, and taking 24 shots.
Most of the players on our top-15 list were sent home early, and some of the finest third-line performances we've seen so far are from those nowhere near our list of the top regular-season performers, which strongly suggests an element of unpredictability.
Pittsburgh's Maxime Talbot is a great example of a stat-defying third-line star. Last year, it was his goal that propelled the Penguins to the Stanley Cup, and it was his encouraging words that helped Marc-Andre Fleury bounce back from a disappointing loss in Game 5. Despite a sub-replacement regular season, with a GVT of minus-1.7 and a minus-1.50 rating, he's doing it again this year, having bagged a shorthanded game winner and adding three assists; he was plus-3 in the opening round.
And what about Washington's Matt Bradley, another classic third-liner who last November got his face bloodied in a vicious fight and then rallied back to score the game winner? Overall, he had an uninspiring 3.1 regular-season GVT and a minus-1.24 rating, but kicked it up in the playoffs with 24 hits, a goal, two assists and plus-2 against Montreal.
Talbot's and Bradley's fine performances in the first round just go to show that you can't predict the best role players based on the regular season. The length of a series is so short, and the dynamics of the game so complex, that virtually any of the league's best third-liners will have the opportunity to either shine brilliantly or fail spectacularly. As it stands, with teams like Los Angeles, Washington, Buffalo and Ottawa sent home early, the Pittsburgh Penguins stand almost alone in third-line productivity. If they repeat as champions, I suggest Sidney Crosby look to pass the Stanley Cup to Staal, Cooke or Talbot after his initial hoist.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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