Simplicity, consistency key for one of the NHL’s most unheralded lines

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WINNIPEG — Paul Maurice says he saw it long before the underlying metrics pointed out that he owned one of the NHL’s top lines.

And we’re not talking Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.

When you think of elite lines in the NHL, there are several that come quickly to mind.

Lines with Rantanen and MacKinnon, Matthews and Nylander, Stamkos and Kucherov, Couturier and Giroux and many others spring to mind.

What you wouldn’t expect to see is a line known more for, at least through an observer’s eye, a grinding style that’s tasked with shutting down opposing team’s top lines, being called one of the top 10 lines in the NHL based on advanced metrics.

So it was surprising to see Adam Lowry’s line with Andrew Copp and Brandon Tanev in a story done over the summer by the folks at Broad Street Hockey.

Devoid of household names around the NHL, the line affectionately known as the ‘TLC’ line in Winnipeg, has nevertheless exhibited elite attributes as a trio.

Maurice knew who I was talking about long before I finished my preamble about the line in question.

“I know there was a stretch of time where — and I don’t have the exact dates — they ran top four in the NHL for chances-for based on a certain definition of chances-for, which is a really high number,” Maurice said. “What’s unique about that line is offensive zone time and chances for, and that’s why I think they’re so effective.”

Maurice pointed out that his ‘shutdown’ line is spending most of the time in the other team’s offensive zone. Given the competition they’re thrown over the boards to play against, it’s remarkable.

“Exactly,” Maurice said.

* * *

Broad Street’s story used several metrics to come up with their list of lines, added some parameters on how long the line had to have played together to get a sample size worthy of being compared, and then let the numbers tell the story.

That story showed that the Lowry line accounted for a 66.67 percent goals-for percentage, meaning the Jets accounted for more goals with the line on the ice than it did against with the same unit on the ice. The bare minimum aim here is 50 percent. As you can see, the TLC line was much higher.

In terms of possession numbers, there was no better line in the NHL than Winnipeg’s trio with 60.56 percent. That is to say that, simply, the line outshot their opponents.

Using the numbers Broad Street compiled, no other line topped 60 percent. They also were best-in-show when it came to expected goals-for at 62.28 percent, meaning the Jets were more likely than not outscore their opponents with the TLC line on the ice.

Winnipeg’s unequivocal top line of Scheifele, Connor and Wheeler? They didn’t crack the Top 10.

It’s nothing magical, according to Lowry.

Lowry is the guy in the dressing room you go when you want a scouting report on the team in town for a game or just insight on any player in the league. He knows other teams lines and their tendencies. He’s prepared.

As complex as some of the numbers might be, Lowry simplifies what his line does right and why perhaps the underlying numbers are what they are for his line.

“You look at Schiefele’s line, for example, they’re not getting the third and fourth chances off the rebound because they’re goalscorers, they’re in the other team’s zone and they’re one and done, you know?” Lowry said. “They could have a lower Corsi, let’s say they’ve given up seven shots and only had three for but have scored on two of them.

Lowry says the predictable play of his line feeds into how effective his line is. Interdependency between the three is high.

“We might not necessarily have that high-end skill, but it makes our game so much simpler to read,” Lowry said. “I know there are about three options when Copp has the puck about the way it’s going to go. I know with Andrew and Brandon, we don’t have to be the fastest but we’re going to play faster because we know, generally, what we’re going to do. It makes us going to the right spots easier because they’re really smart players.”

Copp likes to call it consistent, but he says it means the same thing as Lowry saying predictable.

“It’s more chemistry than anything else,” Copp said, admitting there’s no way to really account for what that means. “I think it comes from consistent play. You look at Schiefele and Wheeler and Kyle Connor. There’s consistency. Our line, we’re consistent in our routes, in our play and our work ethic. We’re not trying to stray or do anything secretive.”

Copp says if they’re the resulting high numbers comes down to how it happens.

“It’s constant pressure in their zone,” he said. “It’s how good we can be defensive that leads to that, too. We’re not Nikita Kucherov creating chances, but we defend so hard and so well that it leads to a lot of opportunities.”

A simpler game?

“I’d say more direct than simple,” Copp said.

Tanev agrees. Given the lines consistency on the ice, it’s not surprising it spills into the dressing room and in front of the media.

“We know where one another is going to be, and that makes it so much easier in the offensive zone,” Tanev said. “We trust one another. It makes us hard to play against.”

Lowry says analytics have their worth. In the same breath, however, when he jumps over the boards, he’s not thinking about trying to even up a lopsided Corsi rating.

“You just can’t think like that, it will throw you off your game,” he said. “We’re going to have good numbers based on good play.

“It’s important, though. If you’re a bad Corsi player or whatever, you’re giving up a lot of high-danger chances, there are probably areas to improve on.”

* * *

Maurice says his team is not a Corsi team.

He says there’s a threshold when it comes to how much he wants his team to be shooting the puck, but as an example, he says he doesn’t want Patrik Laine shooting a puck he doesn’t want to shoot.

“I do like the idea of controlling the puck,” Maurice said, adding that philosophies among coaches across the league differ. “Some shoot everything and I mean shoot everything. I believed in that for a long time, but then the players here changed.”

Maurice then asked his own question.

“What’s the value of even?” he said, adding that he knows someone is going to mock him for it.

“If Adam Lowry goes out and he’s even and Mark Scheifele goes out and he’s even, is it the same value?” Maurice said, nevertheless. “For me, the answer is no.

“If Adam goes out an he’s even and he’s playing against the other team’s best, he’s not done less than you would have hoped offensively, but he’s done more defensively.

“Now, if Scheifele goes out and he’s even, he’s probably done what you thought he would do defensively but far less offensively. There has to be a different value.”

Maurice said when he got to Winnipeg, the analytics crew they used looked at how their players compared to the top two offensive players in the league.

“Our numbers were terrible, which tells you don’t have a consistent line to play or a group to play against their best,” Maurice said.

The remedy that started the turn around for the Jets was putting Andrew Ladd with Bryan Little and Michael Frolik, and putting Scheifele with Wheeler.

“We had a pretty good run,” Maurice said as a result.

The Jets made the playoffs in 2014-15, Maurice’s first full year behind the bench, for the first time since the team moved to Winnipeg in 2011.

The progress from there has turned Winnipeg into a team that won 52 games last year and reached the Western Conference Final.

More importantly, it’s helped to the Jets grow into a Stanley Cup contender.

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Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck