CRANBERRY, Pa. -- Wednesday marked the first training camp practice in which all players who are expected to make the NHL roster practiced together. As a result, we got a first look at some real potential line combinations.
One such combination was the third line of Jared McCann, Nick Bjugstad and Patric Hornqvist, a line that has spent significant time together throughout training camp.
The trio stood out during the scrimmages in the early days of training camp for the speed and offensive pressure they were able to create. The line was pure energy in those games, which is exactly what you want in a third line.
"From the last few days, the feeling between the three of us is pretty good," Bjugstad said of his line. "A lot of energy, and we all like to forecheck, get on the puck and play down low. I think we're all kind of similar in ways and have strengths in other areas, too. I played with Jared a decent bit in Florida, so I know him well. We always meshed well together. I think anyone who plays with Hornqvist succeeds usually, because he does the right things. He digs deep and comes up with pucks, and plays on the right side of the puck. When you're playing with guys like that, it makes hockey a little more fun, you create a lot more chances."
The line saw success in a small sample size last season. In 33:13 of five-on-five play, the line was on the ice for a combined 36 shot attempts, compared to 29 allowed. The line scored twice and allowed one goal, and drove to the net often, racking up 12 high-danger shot attempts and just three allowed.
One of the greatest strengths of this combination based off of early impressions is its versatility. Both Bjugstad and McCann have played and are comfortable with both center and wing. Players often speak about the added comfort that comes from having a natural center playing on the wing, like McCann is on this line. It allows the line's center to be more aggressive on faceoffs because he knows that if he gets tossed from the faceoff circle, someone who is also skilled at draws is waiting in the wings.
"It's nice to have (Bjugstad) that's a righty and (McCann) that's a lefty that can take faceoffs because they're both center-icemen," Mike Sullivan said. "If one of them gets kicked out, there's a comfort level with a center-iceman going in to take a draw."
"You can, not say cheat, but cheat," McCann added.
The three are also versatile in that they've all played up and down the lineup.
"We've all played all over," said McCann. "We've played first line, second line, whatever it is. I feel like we're not just labeled as a third line, we have the skill on the line that can create like a second or first line."
"When we're caught in different areas of the ice, if I'm first forward forechecking and it goes the other way and (McCann) is the first forward back, definitely more comfortable," Bjugstad said. "He knows how to play center, he knows how to take draws. If I'm not winning on one side he can fill in on the other, and vice versa. I think it's good when you have guys that play all types of different positions and know what it's like, I think it can definitely bring a lot and add a lot to each line."
All three players are also good at driving to the net and playing down low, and creating pressure that way. Hornqvist, especially, doesn't shy away from mixing it up in the crease and doing what he can to bang in loose pucks. Whether it's depth scoring or adding grit, the line has the potential to contribute.
"I can even bring a little more grit myself," Bjugstad said. "That doesn't mean cross-checking guys in the face, but it just means coming up with pucks, making it hard to play against. That's an attribute I can try to bring to this team -- playing well down low, using my body, and trying to help the team in whatever way I can. It's early in camp, nothing's set in stone, but for now, the time being, us playing together is pretty fun."
"We're going to do whatever it takes to help this team win, whether its getting in guys faces and creating that way, and if we have to do it then we have to do it," McCann said. "We'll do whatever it takes."
Just because the three are on the third line doesn't mean Sullivan doesn't expect to be able to use them in high-pressure situations, either.
"It's a conscientious line in the sense that they play at both ends of the rink," Sullivan said. "We could play them against other teams' top lines and have a comfort level. And they are a line that can score. There's skill there. They are all pretty accomplished offensive players. But what I've liked about it when we've had that line together last year was they're hard to play against. They're conscientious. If we don't go power against power, for example, and we don't play Sid's line against another team's top line, that's another line, potentially, that we could use if we want to take Sid out of some defensive responsibilities and (defensive) zone starts. We could use (Bjugstad) and that line in defensive-zone starts."
Last regular season, the line was primarily deployed for defensive-zone starts. The line saw 11 defensive-zone starts, compared to 10 neutral-zone starts, and seven offensive-zone starts.
"We can put them in difficult situations and they're effective," Sullivan said.
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