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A drastic change in NHL philosophy

Phoenix Coyotes’ Oliver Ekman-Larsson (L) skates past Boston Bruins celebrating a goal....

Phoenix Coyotes’ Oliver Ekman-Larsson (L) skates past Boston Bruins celebrating a goal. REUTERS/David W Cerny

Jeff Frank, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 11:55 AM ET

Philadelphia, PA - The idea of putting all your eggs in one basket was once the prevalent theory in the NHL, as most teams had their top forwards skating together on the No. 1 line.

Who doesn't remember all the top trios? There was The Production Line in Detroit (Ted Lindsay-Sid Abel-Gordie Howe), The Punch Line in Montreal (Toe Blake-Elmer Lach-Maurice Richard), The French Connection in Buffalo (Richard Martin-Gilbert Perreault- Rene Robert), and The Trio Grande on Long Island (Clark Gillies-Bryan Trottier-Mike Bossy)

More modern incarnations include Mikeal Renberg-Eric Lindros-John LeClair in Philadelphia, Markus Naslund-Brendan Morrison-Todd Bertuzzi in Vancouver, and Patrick Elias-Jason Arnott-Petr Sykora in New Jersey.

Even as recently as last year, it was common to see the top three players skating together as about one-third of the 30 teams' top three scorers played on the top line.

As the 2010-11 campaign gets underway, however, a new trend is emerging. Many clubs are not only breaking up their No. 1 unit, they are shifting some scoring punch all the way down to the third line, which for years was used to check the opposing team's top three skaters.

For example, the San Jose Sharks began this season with Captain Joe Thornton centering Jamie McGinn and Devin Setoguchi. Second line center Joe Pavelski had Torrey Mitchell and Ryane Clowe on his wings, while youngster Logan Couture had the cushy job of skating between Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley.

Over in the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia Flyers' so-called third line features the likes of Claude Giroux centering James Van Riemsdyk and Nikolay Zherdev.

But perhaps the most interesting example of this change in philosophy comes out of Atlanta.

The Thrashers, who scored just 42 goals in last year's final 20 games, came into last Friday's season opener with 10 new players on their roster, along with a new coach and general manager.

Atlanta doesn't have what hockey purists would call a top line, instead they rebuilt the offense to include three evenly-matched units led by Evander Kane- Rich Peverley-Anthony Stewart.

Kane chipped in with a pair of goals, including one on a penalty shot, in Atlanta's 4-2 victory over the Capitals - the team that took home the Presidents' Trophy last year with 121 points - and then chased Martin Brodeur the following night in a 7-2 win over New Jersey.

The Thrashers, desperate for scoring help, moved former 31-goal scorer Bryan Little back to center flanked by Andrew Ladd and Nicklas Bergfors. That line scored the game-winner versus Washington when Ladd put one past Michal Neuvirth in the second period.

The third trio was actually centered by the team's leading scorer in 2009-10, as Nik Antropov skated alongside two newcomers in Fredrik Modin and Nigel Dawes. How many clubs have their top point-getter playing with teammates that combined for 19 goals and just 43 points a season ago?

Another example of this new strategy comes from the Dallas Stars, who are also moving forward with three top lines by playing newly acquired Adam Burish with Mike Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow. Last year that spot was occupied by Jamie Benn, who is now teamed with Steve Ott and Tom Wandell on the third line.

Why the change of philosophy?

The obvious answer is in order to the spread the wealth. That said, with scoring already up across the NHL over the last two years, it's a change that does not need to see the light of day.

Two more important reasons for the modification are 1) the lack of defensive prowess by young forwards coming into the league and 2) the salary cap, which has cut down the number of defensively-responsible skaters. Those players are now moving overseas to play in other leagues, since owners and general managers must concern themselves with salaries instead of filling out quality rosters.

To that end, there are at least 85 centers and wingers currently in the NHL that have fewer than three years of experience, which amounts to a shade under one-quarter of all forwards in the entire league.

Years ago, teams featured their top six scorers holding down most of the minutes, with checking and energy lines filling out the bottom six. That scenario will soon become extinct if the clubs that are using their third unit as a scoring line are successful in today's NHL.

The results of the first 24 games this season have seen a reversal of form in terms of scoring, as teams are averaging only 5.54 goals per game. Last season, the total was 5.68 while the year before the league finished at 5.7 goals per contest.

If this new style of play continues, look for the league to average the fewest number of goals since 2007-08, when the 30 squads picked up just 5.44 goals per game.


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