Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel had a few different linemates last season.
Looking at just five-on-five time, their most frequent linemates were Bryan Rust (461 minutes), Dominik Simon (204 minutes), Jared McCann (119 minutes), and Patric Hornqvist (108 minutes).
Which combination worked best? Let's break it down.
We'll use Micah Blake McCurdy's Environment Distiller tool, which looks at five-on-five unblocked shot attempts, both for and against, while the different line combinations were on the ice. The tool gives us a "threat" percentage for the combination, which takes into account the number of unblocked shot attempts and the distance of the attempts relative to the rest of the league's average. The number is simply a reflection of the heat map, which shows the frequency of unblocked shot attempts from different areas of the ice.
Some people don't like the use of advanced metrics when analyzing the effectiveness of one player because these are on-ice metrics, not individual stats. When we're looking at the effectiveness of a line combination, however, these on-ice stats are useful. They tell us the overall combined success of the line when it comes to producing and preventing shots.
We'll also look at Goals For percentages, which deal strictly with the goals scored while the line is on the ice. A percentage over 50 means the line is on the ice for more goals-for than against, and a percentage under 50 means the opposite.
For our baseline, let's look at the statistics when both Crosby and Guentzel are on the ice, with any linemate. They have an offensive threat of plus-22 percent. That's great:
They're pretty strong defensively, too. The threats of opposing teams' offenses are down minus-8 percent when both Crosby and Guentzel are on the ice:
How does that translate to actual goals, though? When Crosby and Guentzel were both on the ice during five-on-five, the Penguins scored 72 goals and allowed 36 for a percentage of 66.67. That's tremendous.
Now, let's look at how different linemates affected those results.
With Rust, the offensive threat of the top line decreased slightly to 20 percent. That's still a strong result, but down 2 percent from Crosby and Guentzel's overall average.
Defensively, the combination wasn't great. The threat level of opposing teams' offenses actually becomes a positive number here, plus-6 percent:
The actual Goals For percentage remains the same, however, at 66.67 percent. That comes from 26 goals for and 13 against while the combination was on the ice.
The offensive threat of the Penguins' top line saw a decent jump when Simon was on the top line at a plus-29 percent, an increase from the baseline plus-22 percent:
The defensive success of this line was absurd, however. We already know that overall, the Crosby/Guentzel combination decreases the offensive threat of opposing teams by minus-8 percent. When Simon is added into the mix, that number falls to a minus-23 percent. As the heat map shows, the line was especially strong at preventing the high-danger chances close to the net:
The Goals For percentage stayed the same, though, at 66.67 percent. That's 18 goals for and nine against.
The offensive threat of the line with McCann comes in at a plus-22 percent, the same as the Crosby and Guentzel pairing's overall average:
Defensively, the line was stronger than usual at minus-17 percent. That's a big improvement over the defensive success with Rust, but not quite as strong as the line's defensive play with Simon:
The success of this line when it comes to goals was lower, with a Goals For percentage of 58.33 percent. That's seven goals for and five against.
The offensive threat of the line with Hornqvist was a plus-20 percent -- slightly lower than Crosby and Guentzel's overall average, and equal to that of the line with Rust:
Defensively, the line was very strong, with a threat of minus-23 percent -- equal to that of the line with Simon:
When it comes to strictly goals, the effectiveness of the line was stronger than average, but not quite as strong as other combinations. The line was on the ice for seven goals for and four against, for a percentage of 63.64.
People aren't going to like this, but the Penguins' top line performed its best with Simon.
The best ratio of goals for to against was a tie between the lines with Rust and with Simon, at 66.67 percent.
When it comes to the actual offensive pressure created, the line was best with Simon, at plus-29 percent. The strongest combination defensively was a tie between the ones that included Simon and Hornqvist, at minus-23 percent.
How is that possible when Simon recorded just eight goals and 20 assists all season?
Simon, individually, regularly produces a high volume of shot attempts. They're not always great shots, but he's exceptional at getting the puck to the net. And even if the puck doesn't go in the net off of those attempts (as it usually doesn't), he's creating a high volume of rebound attempts for the actual finishers on the line, Crosby and Guentzel.
Simon is also good at getting the puck directly to the players who can finish, like this feed straight to the tape of Crosby in one of the line's first games together this season:
Does that mean Simon should be on the top line next season? Not necessarily. New addition Dominik Kahun has the speed and the skillset that seem to make him a fit for that line, and he should be given a chance in the position.
Simon's strong defensive play makes him a fit for a bottom-6 role next season. But by all measures last season, bumping him up to the top line when needed is far from a bad fallback plan.
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