In the game of hockey, much is made of individual performances and skill sets. But hockey is and always will be a team sport, and no matter how great a young player is, he will always be reliant upon his linemates. Every second on the ice is a battle. For every highlight-reel shift where a player weaves around his entire opposition and scores, there are a thousand shifts where he and his linemates have to work together for a positive result.
Chemistry, complementary skill sets and play styles, and even the coach’s line-juggling all come into play – but when things click, the results are powerful, the line becomes dominant, and the team becomes a force to be reckoned with.
This week, the Hockey’s Future Top 5 takes a look at the five best lines in the CHL in the 2014-15 season.
5. The Medicine Hat Tigers top line: Trevor Cox, Steven Owre, Cole Stanford
It’s not very often that you see a line of three undrafted hockey players dominate a league quite the way the Tigers top line has so far in the 2014-15 season. And it’s the reason why two thirds of this line could potentially be signed by season’s end.
Led by Trevor Cox (WHL points leader), the undersized scoring line which has a combined average height of just over 5-foot-9, has been incredibly dangerous in all situations–especially on the power play and in transition where they can really utilize their speed and skill. Cole Sanford in particular looks good on the man-advantage, where he’s able to set up and unleash his NHL-quality shot. Despite their lack of size, the older Tiger forwards have a propensity to battle in the difficult areas of the ice, and play a very traditional “WHL” (read: rough and tough) style of play. Much of this has to do with Steven Owre’s quiet and mistake-free game which lets Cox and Stanford do what they do best.
4. The Kelowna Rockets 1A line: Tyrell Goulbourne (PHI), Rourke Chartier (SJS), Nick Merkley (2015)
At the start of the year, there was no doubt that the Kelowna Rockets top line of Rourke Chartier, Nick Merkley, and Tyrell Goulbourne was the best in the CHL. They had lit the WHL on fire with their explosive two-way play, and were overpowering the opposition in the offensive zone. While Goulbourne has been a thorn in the side of anyone he plays against, the real motor for this lineup is the chemistry between Chartier and Merkley. The two complement each other well, and read the play off of one another with exceptional skill; it’s almost Sedin-like. While Merkley is the better of the two and will carry with him the title of first round pick later this summer, Chartier, a late-round selection by the San Jose Sharks, is having a coming out party by all accounts, and even earned a Team Canada Selection Camp nod for his incredible goal-scoring ability.
More impressive than their individual accolades, is the fact that this line is a big reason why the Kelowna Rockets are the best team, not just in the WHL, but quite possibly in the entire CHL. As good as this line is, however, the recent addition of Leon Draisaitl has created less opportunities for the Kelowna trio, and the offense just hasn’t been the same since.
3. The Moncton Wildcats top line: Ivan Barbashev (STL), Conor Garland, Stephen Johnson
Spend five minutes watching the Moncton Wildcats and you’ll probably think they only have one forward line. These Moncton kids play more minutes and longer shifts than any CHL forward should; they’re overused, and being heavily relied upon by the Wildcats to win, and somehow they are defying all odds and winning.
The top line features Ivan Barbashev, undrafted QMJHL scoring leader Conor Garland, and a rotating cast of players, the most recent of which is Stephen Johnson. It’s a collection of skill, tenacity, speed, and grit – and it’s one of the most balanced and well thought-out lines in junior hockey. Garland is the little steam engine that could who drives the play with his amazing playmaking ability and vicious tenacity (he’s only 5-foot-8, but he’ll fight anyone who gets in his way–he’s very scrappy). Barbashev is the caboose, who uses his size and offensive arsenal to push around the competition in a man versus child type way, while Johnson is like the train station… letting the other two go out into the world to do their job while he sits back and does train-stationy things.
2. The Erie Otters top line: Connor McDavid (2015), Remi Elie (DAL), Nicholas Baptiste (BUF)
Connor McDavid and pylons with sticks taped to them could have made this list. McDavid, the most coveted prospect heading into the 2015 NHL Draft, is a generational prospect with an unbelievable skill set. So when you throw in Remi Elie and what he can offer on both sides of the ice, you have one of the most deadly lines in all of CHL hockey. Despite a rotating cast of linemates (including promising 2016 prospect Alex DeBrincat), the coaching staff seems to have settled on the acquired Nicholas Baptiste as the third and final piece to the puzzle. Baptiste, a third round pick for the Buffalo Sabres, adds some grit, a little bit of tenacity, and more offense to this already potent Otters top line.
1. The London Knights top line: Mitchell Marner, Christian Dvorak (ARZ), Max Domi (ARZ)
Speed, skill, and a surprising element of defensive prowess make up the London Knights top line. Led by 2015 top prospect Mitchell Marner (the CHL’s top scorer with 124 points), the newly-formed top line features three of the OHL’s top eight scorers, including Marner, Christian Dvorak (5th) and Max Domi (8th). The highly skilled threesome creates all kinds of matchup trouble for the opposition. While traditionally used as a scoring line, the fact that all three players have solid two-way components to their game allows head coach Dale Hunter (a master at developing great, defensively responsible forwards) to throw this line out in all situations, including late in the game with a one-goal lead. The trio is probably the most clutch line out of the five featured in this list, with a combined 17 game-winning-goals, thanks to an uncanny ability to up their game during the third period.
Blainville-Boisbriand Armada top line: Nikita Jevpavlovs, Danick Martel, Marc-Antoine Bouillon
What’s the best line in the CHL? Are we missing anyone in our top 5? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.