Fantasy Hockey: Importance of Line Combinations

In hockey, line combinations can play a vital role in the success (or failure) of a team. Unfortunately, steady line combinations have practically become an endangered species. Today's modern NHL head coach is more interested in playing the right system than in who plays with whom. Previous generations saw lines on a hockey team remain fairly stagnant compared to today's NHL. It led to a few historically significant combinations such as the Buffalo Sabres' 'French Connection' featuring Richard Martin-Gilbert Perreault-Rene Robert, the Los Angeles Kings' 'Triple Crown Line' of Charlie Simmer-Marcel Dionne-Dave Taylor and the Philadelphia Flyers' 'Legion of Doom' with John LeClair-Eric Lindros-Mikael Renberg. These days, it is far more rare to see three forwards remain on the same unit for long periods of time. Coaches prefer to switch things up when the team struggles, even if he has a combination that is productive and consistent.

Therefore, in fantasy hockey it is dangerous to draft players according to their linemates because changes in lines are seemingly inevitable. Toronto's No. 1 line last season, featuring three rookies (Zach Hyman-Auston Matthews-William Nylander) is a great example of how lines can alter fantasy strategy. Matthews is a stud goal-scorer who will be great regardless of his linemates, though he has added value with Nylander setting him up. The latter, for his part, can produce points whether he is playing right wing on Matthews' line or centering his own unit at his natural position. As for Hyman, he ONLY has value if he remains with Matthews and Nylander on a regular basis (and even then, his value is severely limited). The moral of the story here is simple: draft good players who can remain valuable even if placed on a different line, because coaches will always make changes.

As the '17-18 campaign approaches, here are five more intriguing line combinations to keep an eye on:

1. Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Conor Sheary, Penguins                                       

By now, No. 87 has proven himself with just about any linemate over the years. In fact, one of his best statistical campaigns occurred with professional grinders Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis on his wings a few seasons ago. Now, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan feels comfortable with two young, quick, diminutive and creative wingers by Crosby's side. While Guentzel seems to have a lot more upside as a scorer (and could still produce if moved off Pittsburgh's top unit), Sheary's value seems to be locked into Crosby. Sheary is clearly the bigger fantasy risk.

2. David Perron-Vadim Shipachyov-James Neal, Golden Knights

It is probably too early to start putting certain line combinations for the expansion franchise in ink, but at least new Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant has the potential for a true No. 1 unit at his disposal. Veteran wingers Perron and Neal are solid fantasy producers: the former is gritty and creative, with the ability to complement talented forwards well. As for Neal, he is one of the NHL's purest snipers who potted 40 goals in 2012-13 when paired with Russian playmaker Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh). Can Shipachyov help Neal can duplicate that? 

3. Artemi Panarin-Alexander Wennberg-Nick Foligno, Blue Jackets

All eyes in Columbus this season will be squarely on Panarin, the ridiculously-talented Russian and former Blackhawks sniper who is coming off back-to-back seasons of 70-plus points to launch his NHL career. Panarin, who turns 26 in October, had great (and instant) chemistry with Chicago superstar Patrick Kane. Therefore, it will be up to Jackets coach John Tortorella to find the right linemates for the club's new acquisition. Swedish playmaker Wennberg seems to be the obvious first choice to play next to Panarin. Foligno can provide muscle.

4. Anders Lee-John Tavares-Jordan Eberle, Islanders      

Is this the swan-song season for the Islanders' franchise center, Tavares? If so, at least the team is looking to end the era with a bang. Eberle was brought in from Edmonton to provide more creativity and more production on the wings. He and Tavares were once teammates with Canada's World Junior Championships squad, so look for coach Doug Weight to give the duo plenty of time to get acclimated with one another. Lee is coming off a career season (34 goals) and would add beef to the top unit (though vet Andrew Ladd is another possibility). 

5. Michael Cammalleri-Anze Kopitar-Dustin Brown, Kings     

This is hardly the second coming of the fabled Triple Crown Line for the Kings, but adding Cammalleri in the off-season seems designed to get Kopitar's offensive numbers up again. The two were teammates in Kopitar's first two seasons in the NHL, but the diminutive and oft-injured Cammalleri is now 35 years old. For his part, Brown turns 33 in November and has been in steep offensive decline. That said, new Kings coach John Stevens just might decide to put these three veterans together with the hope of reversing Kopitar's offensive fortunes.