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A Look At Blashill’s Most Used Forward Lines Through the First 3 Games

It’s hard to find consistency in the lines of the Jeff Blashill-run Detroit Red Wings. This season, with one notable departure and a few key additions, Blashill has more options for fresh lines to allow the players to build some chemistry with one another. Of course, nothing is sacred as the Red Wings coach turned on his line blender early into the season opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets when he felt things start to go sour.

Despite this, the Wings have had four line combinations that have played some significant minutes with one another at 5-on-5. Here they are, listed from most minutes played (which I’ve dubbed “Line 1”) to least minutes played (“Line 4”):

Line #

Combination

5-on-5 TOI

Line 1

Mantha – Larkin – Nyquist

38.02

Line 2

Abdelkader – Athanasiou – Vanek

27.27

Line 3

Rasmussen – Nielsen – Bertuzzi

24.05

Line 4

Helm – Ehn – Glendening

19.93

After the preseason that the Wings had, these lines actually make a lot of sense. Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha started to build some chemistry together and they’ve performed admirably in the opening games.

Andreas Athanasiou showed that he could anchor a line in exhibition play, but, despite the hype of having him paired with Thomas Vanek, has had a relatively slow start to the regular season.

Michael Rasmussen had some rough edges to smooth out through the preseason. Playing with a vet like Frans Nielsen will help with that and Tyler Bertuzzi gives the line an aggressive edge.

Finally, Christopher Ehn’s quiet confidence has become more invisible in regular season play. That’s not a bad thing. I still think that Luke Glendenning makes more sense to play at center considering how effective he is in the faceoff circle.

But enough about my anecdotal observations on these lines, let’s see what the data says about them through the first three regular season games:

Line #

GF

GA

SF/60

SA/60

CF%

Line 1

1

3 41.03

17.36

66.67

Line 2

0

2 15.40

44.00

31.58

Line 3

1

0 14.97 17.46

48.65

Line 4

1

0 27.09

24.08

51.43

Outside of goal scoring (the Wings have six goals on the season so far, but only three have come at 5-on-5), it quickly becomes clear which line is performing the best and which is performing the worst.

With a whopping 66.67 CF%, the first line of Gustav Nyquist, Larkin and Mantha have the ninth best CF% in the league of trios that have played more than 20 minutes together. This line has very clearly been the most dominant of Detroit’s four. And you don’t need stats to tell you that –  the eye test will do.

Look no further than the shift after the L.A. Kings first goal on Sunday night. With a strong forecheck, the line came out energized, spending a little less than a minute in the Kings’ zone, moving the puck around and registering three shot attempts.

On the other end of the spectrum, the second line consisting of Justin Abdelkader, Athanasiou, and Vanek has been very bad. Both Vanek and Athanasiou have the highest percentages of offensive zone starts on the team, yet the line that they make up two-thirds of is registering a measly 15.40 shots-for-per-sixty and a team-worst 31.58 CF%.

In between the best and worst lines are the classic “checking lines” and each player’s deployment reflects that.

Line 4 has been particularly surprising as they’ve transitioned well from the defensive end to creative offensive chances. They are the only line outside of Line 1 that has a positive shot attempt percentage and have even contributed offensively at 5-on-5 with Darren Helm’s goal against the Anaheim Ducks on Monday.

As for Line 3, they have played their shutdown role valiantly. Despite spending most of their time in the defensive zone, they have not allowed any goals while on the ice and have a CF% that is flirting with the 50% line. There seems to be some chemistry developing as well based on how they connected for Tyler Bertuzzi’s beautiful spin-o-rama goal Monday night.

So Lines 3 and 4 are finding their groove in these early games, but something had to be done about the abysmal performance from Line 2.

THE NYQUIST/ABDELKADER SWAP

It was announced today at practice that Blashill had moved Abdelkader up to the first line to play with Larkin and Mantha, while Nyquist will move to the second line to play with Athanasiou and Vanek in tomorrow’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There’s no secret as to what the problem was on Line 2. Abdelkader had half of the individual shot attempts that Athanasiou and Vanek had. He’s got one shot on goal at 5-on-5 in three games, two penalty minutes and is a minus-2. Looking at the WOWY from hockeyviz.com, most of the Red Wings that have logged minutes with Abdelkader actually look better when they play without him, especially Athanasiou (72) and Vanek (26).

Keep in mind that this is a very small sample size of data. Abdelkader’s having a bad start to the season. With a newborn at home and having to jump time zones for a tough West Coast road trip, he’s probably exhausted. He will bounce back to something that is a little more inspiring, but he’s not Line 1 material.

This move will likely balance out the performance of both lines, with Line 1 spending a little more time in the defensive zone and Line 2 able to transition to offense a little better. My concern is how much Abdelkader’s performance is going to drag down Larkin and Mantha, which could lead to Blashill splitting them up in the blender.

If I had it my way, I would be leaving Nyquist on the top line and move Abdelkader down the lineup, maybe swapping him with Bertuzzi or Helm.

Blashill doesn’t have a lot of developed talent to work with on this roster, so when I see some lines clicking, it’s tough to watch them be separated. Brad Krysko said it best on last week’s episode of the Winged Wheel Podcast: Jeff Blashill’s whole philosophy on coaching seems to be “I’m playing to not lose, I’m not playing to win”.

This move is a perfect example of that. Line 1 is a winning line that is the team’s best. Splitting them up is detrimental to the overall team offense. The only positive is that Nyquist could help AA and Vanek get going, but the cost of this could be felt by Larkin and Mantha.

Blashill has said that he’s not sure these lines are going to stick, so there’s always the possibility that Nyquist will find himself back on a line with Larkin and Mantha. All Blashill has to do is turn on the blender. Who needs consistency, anyways?