Kings Should Commit to New Look Third Line

One positive to come from the Los Angeles Kings’ recent injury crisis, is an increase in chances for young players. This has been seen in many areas, including on defense and in Arthur Kaliyev being moved into the top six. It can also be seen in the team’s new third line, nicknamed the Champagne line by Color Commentator Jim Fox, featuring Rasmus Kupari, Quinton Byfield, and Gabe Vilardi.

Related: Kings Should Move Kupari to Wing Amid Injury Crisis

In the last two games, the Kings have played. arguably, the two best teams in hockey and this line have more than kept up. They were statistically dominant against the Florida Panthers and were solid again on Tuesday against the Colorado Avalanche. The stats don’t look as good in that game, but to the eye, they looked great. Yes, it’s been just two games, but the Kings should commit to this line for the rest of the season, and here’s why.

The Players Who Make the Line

First, I want to discuss the three players, their individual strengths and weaknesses are how they work together as a line.

Rasmus Kupari

I’m still shocked how many people were writing Kupari off after he struggled in his first 37 games this season, playing center on a line that turned out to struggle even without him. Well, he’s playing wing now and is looking to prove his doubters wrong. Even outside of his goal, he’s been the best player on that line for me. He’s playing with a confidence and speed we didn’t see earlier in the year, he’s playing to his strengths and it’s paying off. His goal was a great representation of his strengths though, he uses his speed to pounce on a loose puck, dangles one defenseman, accelerates to attack another defender one-on-one, and then buries on the backhand. It’s Kupari at his best, speed, skill, and finish.

Rasmus Kupari Los Angeles Kings
Rasmus Kupari, Los Angeles Kings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

These qualities complement his linemates as well, he’s able to capitalize on two great playmakers and puck-movers. He can use his speed and skill to attack spaces with confidence that one of Byfield or Vilardi will either, get him the puck, or make something happen if Kupari dishes to them. He’s also an underrated forechecker, he doesn’t cause too many turnovers, but he’s constantly pressuring opposing defensemen. His 6.24 pressures per 60 place him second on the team behind only Blake Lizotte. Most of his faults simply come from a lack of physical development, he simply isn’t strong enough yet. With more muscle, I’d expect him to cause more turnovers on the forecheck, and more importantly, he’d be able to drive the net more effectively on offense.

He’s played great in the last two games, but there are still situations where he would benefit a lot from dropping a shoulder and driving to the net. This will come with time, and when it does, he’s going to take his game to the next level. The decreased defensive responsibility has also been good for Kupari. He’s looked fine in the last two games but hasn’t stood out one way or the other. On this line, he’s a puck carrier who excels when isolating defensemen one-on-one and can create space for two extremely skilled linemates. His fast-paced, north-south playstyle is the perfect compliment to Vilardi on the other wing, who brings a very different style of play.

Quinton Byfield

Centring this line is 2020 second overall pick, Byfield. He’s a perfect mix between Vilardi and Kupari, able to bridge the gap between the two of them. He’s a fantastic forechecker, posting impressive numbers in both pressures and recovered dump-ins per 60, with Lizotte being the only player beating him out in the latter category. In fact, the next closest player to Byfield’s 7.1 recovered dump-ins per 60 is Brendan Lemieux with 4.1. His skill is also undeniable, he blends size, speed, and stickhandling like few other players can. He’s a better puck carrier than Vilardi and better along the boards and down low than Kupari. More of a pure playmaker than either player, he can facilitate for this line, while also playing in the dirty areas, especially in front of the net.

Quinton Byfield Los Angeles Kings
Quinton Byfield, Los Angeles Kings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Still adapting to the NHL game, he isn’t able to take control of games yet, but that will come with time. Since he was drafted, there were a lot of talks about the length of his stick, with some scouts saying it’s a big deal, and some not being worried about it. We’re seeing now that it’s an issue, as he routinely fumbles the puck under no pressure and would benefit from better utilizing his long reach. Not an adjustment he can make mid-season, it’s something he may need to change this summer. Outside of getting more comfortable in the NHL, there aren’t many holes in his game, once he learns how to impose himself, he will be a dominant player.

On this line, Byfield is another puck transporter, an effective forechecker, facilitator, and a net-front presence. He really is a Mr. everything for this line, and that’s exactly where his ceiling is at. As he gets more comfortable in the league, and on this line, I’d expect him to start really impressing fans. This is the perfect line for him, surrounding him with skill and players he can feed off of, he just needs more time.

Gabe Vilardi

Is there a bigger benefactor to these injuries than Vilardi? Probably not, we know the timeline for him was to be called up in the next few weeks, but not only did it push that timeline up, but it also gave Vilardi the chance to play on a line that suits him. Fans everywhere envisioned Vilardi being called up, just to be stuck on the fourth line where he wouldn’t succeed and would be labeled a lazy bust when in reality, that just isn’t his game. On this line, he fits like a glove. The difference between the Vlardi we saw in the first seven games of the season, and the one we’ve seen in the last two is massive. He looks more confident and more comfortable on wing. Despite having no points in these two games, he’s looked much better overall. Solid defensively and finally dominating along the boards and below the goal line, I really think we’re finally going to see the best version of Vilardi.

Gabriel Vilardi LA Kings
Gabriel Vilardi, Los Angeles Kings (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

I think there just has to be an acceptance of what Vilardi is, he reminds me of what soccer fans consider a “luxury player.” He won’t make a bad line good, but he can make a good line great. He’s a dual-threat offensively, utilizing size, hands, vision, and an excellent shot to hurt teams in multiple ways. His subpar skating means he struggles to carry the puck through the neutral zone and is a mediocre forechecker, needing his linemates to carry him in these aspects. Fortunately, as we’ve just discussed, he has two linemates who can do exactly that. If you can get him set up in the offensive zone, he’s going to create offense, you just need other players to do the heavy lifting for him, and that’s okay.

On this line, Vilardi can be a finisher, scoring himself or setting up linemates after receiving the puck in dangerous areas. A better shooter than Byfield and a better playmaker than Kupari, he’s the perfect complement to both of them. He’s in a great situation with this line, being able to show off his best attributes, while others cover up his biggest flaws.

A Line That Can Grow Together

Another great thing about this line, is you don’t have to split it up, even moving into next season and beyond. They can remain together through this season, gaining chemistry and experience in the NHL, and can then be an incredible third line again next season. One of the team’s biggest issues this season has been a poor third line, and they now have a chance to fix this issue. It’s the perfect situation for them, getting the chance to play favorable matchups behind the top-two lines, letting their skill shine through without having to worry about shutting down the Connor McDavid or Nathan MacKinnon’s of the world. While this is getting a little fantasy hockey, there’s no reason this can’t be a future top-six line for you as well, these are three players who can easily make up the core of your forward group, and allowing them to develop chemistry now is only a positive.

Patience is Key

Fans have been suggesting that both Vilardi and Kupari should be traded all season, and while there is some benefit to that, it’s important to remember the sentiment that Rob Blake has been preaching all season. The organization wants to remain patient and allow these players to develop more before trading them. They want to see what they have in these players and who’s worth keeping. It’s still early days, but there seems to be no reason in trading either player and you obviously aren’t moving Byfield. Remaining patient with these three, as there will certainly be growing pains in future games, will be key, and the organization should commit to this line, as it could pay off huge in the future.

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