Coach Jared Bednar of the Colorado Avalanche tried an experiment a little over a year ago which paid off big for the team. Instead of spreading out his scoring talent, Bednar elected to throw this top players together to see what would happen. Fortunately for Bednar and the Avalanche, something special ensued. Putting team captain Gabriel Landeskog with speedy center Nathan MacKinnon and younger wing Mikko Rantanen was a bold move.
The Avalanche’s Top Line Starts
The Chicago Blackhawks run Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on separate lines. The Pittsburgh Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin centering two different forward trios. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars rarely play 5-on-5 hockey together.
But Bednar struck pay dirt with the Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen line, which first played together Oct. 28, 2017. Not only did the all three end up leading the team in points last year, but both MacKinnon and Rantanen also hit career highs for points, goals and assists. Landeskog nearly tied his career benchmarks from his 2013-14 season. MacKinnon ended up a finalist for both the Hart trophy and the Ted Lindsay award. The Avalanche rode the high-flying trio to their first postseason appearance in four years while icing the youngest team in hockey.
Putting the three together was a decision that paid off last season. But many thought the Avalanche’s success was a flash in the pan, one brief shining moment, before returning to mediocrity. As the one-year anniversary of their electric line combination came and went this past weekend, all three players are letting their actions speak louder than any words. They are not a one-hit wonder. They are for real.
Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen Trio Continues to Improve
The Avalanche sat in a third-place tie for the league heading into the last night of October while occupying a second-place spot—also tied—in both the Western Conference and the consistently tough Central Division. Colorado leads the NHL with a plus-14 goal differential, a far cry from two years ago. The team has already battled injuries and a slew of line shuffling to accommodate said injuries. Yet, the Avalanche’s top forward line continues on their quest to earn a little more respect. And help the team reach the postseason, regardless of who else is on the ice.
Currently, the 22-year-old Rantanen leads the league in points while MacKinnon ranks fourth and Landeskog eighth. Rantanen leads the NHL in assists with 16 helpers over 12 games and is in second place for average points per game with a 1.75 average. Rantanen and Landeskog sit tied atop the NHL leader board in plus/minus while MacKinnon sits in third place behind his teammates. Landeskog occupies a three-way tie for third place in goals scored. MacKinnon, having only scored one fewer goal, sits in a four-way tie for sixth place.
Over their past 72 games, the Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen line owns a plus-30 goal differential with 59 goals scored at 5-on-5. Since the inception of their line combo, the fiercesome threesome have tallied 280 points from 112 goals and 168 assists. In the 12 games so far this year, the trio has combined for 55 points. The only time they haven’t played together since the initial Bednar experiment occurred was last February when MacKinnon missed eight games with a shoulder injury.
Avalanche’s Top Line Garnering Praise
For a deadly scoring combination that went barely noticed until the end of the season last year, the Avalanche forward trio is garnering a lot more attention now. ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski listed the Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen trio as the current top line in hockey. The NHL named Rantanen the Third Star of the Week on Monday after he earned seven points for the week. The previous week, Landeskog earned First Star of the Week honors after notching six goals and an assist for seven total points. The Avalanche threesome seems to be getting some well-deserved recognition.
Credit from one’s adversaries carries even more weight. Consider what Minnesota Wild’s Mikael Granlund said about the Avalanche trio: “That’s probably the best line in the world right now.”
Steven Stamkos, the Tampa Bay Lightning captain, echoed Granlund’s sentiments in the postgame presser when he said “…that first line has probably been the best line in hockey so far…”. Former Dallas Stars captain Mike Modano sent out the following tweet this past week:
— Mike Modano (@9modano) October 27, 2018
It’s still early in the season and there’s a lot of hockey ahead. The powerhouse Avalanche top line still has some kinks to iron out and the trio will need to show they can sustain their scoring prowess throughout the season. But for now, even the team captain has admitted they have been having some success. When asked after the comeback win against the Ottawa Senators whether they were the top line in hockey, Landeskog admitted, “Yeah, we are.” Then he promptly skated off the ice. There’s no doubt the Avalanche’s top line are skating with confident and opportunistic after jumping out to a hot start.
With all their success, the Avalanche’s top line is still missing something – a nickname. Lots have been bandied about yet nothing has become the settled moniker. Maybe Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen should be called what they are, the best line in hockey. Now, let’s see if they can continue to build on their success.