Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. Sergei Fedorov and Slava Kozlov. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
While every forward line consists of three players, what usually happens is the coach spots chemistry between two individuals and then they add a third player to pull the line together. Line-making is an imperfect science that usually takes a ton of trial and error in order to get it right, but sometimes certain players play off of each other so well that it becomes nearly impossible to separate them. Even in the midst of a rebuild, that can still be seen with this season’s Detroit Red Wings.
Now don’t get me wrong, there aren’t any duos this season that can rival the dominance Red Wings fans witnessed from the Russian Five or the “Euro-Twins”. Head coach Jeff Blashill has, however, stumbled across a few combinations that seem to work. These are the duos that have helped Detroit put together an offense that has been better than last year’s anemic group.
Robby Fabbri and Anthony Mantha
157 Five-on-Five Minutes; 46.2 Corsi%; 62.5 Goals-for% (GF%)
Spoiler alert for another entry in this list: Fabbri helps finish plays off. With a team-leading nine goals through 23 games, that probably seems a bit obvious, but his ability to make the most of opportunities has helped the production of more than one of the Red Wings’ top six forwards. His personal numbers have received a boost recently as he has skated alongside Dylan Larkin and Mantha on the top line.
That’s not the only action Fabbri and Mantha have seen together, though. Fabbri has been Mantha’s center on multiple occasions this season, going as far back as the 12th game of the season. The former has his limitations when it comes to playing center, and his recent return to the left wing is likely a big reason for his increased production as of late. Whether he’s playing center or wing, though, playing alongside Mantha leads to the Red Wings scoring more often than their opponents, and that’s a very good thing.
For Mantha’s part, he has always given the Red Wings a boost in terms of chances-for while he’s on the ice. Coming from a strictly analytical standpoint, there’s a case to be made that he is Detroit’s top player. He is tied with Fabbri for third in team-scoring with 15 points, and he has the second-best shooting percentage (S%) on the team among players to take at least 40 shots (Fabbri leads the team with a whopping S% of 22%.) It likely helps both players to skate alongside a player that can finish their chances; opposing defensemen have to respect both as shooting options, and that creates space for them as well as whoever rounds out their line.
Dylan Larkin and Fabbri
97 Five-on-Five Minutes; 45 Corsi%; 53.9 GF%
Lately, the Red Wings’ top line has consisted of Fabbri, Mantha and Larkin, but this particular duo has been the source of some serious magic on the ice.
Larkin, in particular, has generally boosted the performance of whoever skates on his wings. Filip Zadina has some of his best numbers with the Red Wings’ captain, and Tyler Bertuzzi is a first-line winger in “Hockeytown” because of the chemistry he has with No. 71. With Fabbri, though, you’ve got a duo that doesn’t always control the play, but they tend to come out ahead on the scoresheet.
This, more than anything else, is why I like Fabbri as a winger. He’s a better finisher than he is a creator, and placing him alongside someone like Larkin puts him in a position to finish off plays. That Larkin is the team’s top creator only boosts this duo’s effectiveness even more. Their chemistry is undeniable, and the Red Wings’ results of late have been a reflection of this duo’s production.
Vladislav Namestnikov and Sam Gagner
164 Five on Five Minutes; 48 Corsi%; 63.6 GF%
Realistically, these are both third line forwards. Despite that, they have formed a pair that regularly develops an effective cycle in the offensive zone against the lower part of opposing team’s lineups. Add a finisher like Zadina to their line and suddenly you’ve got a solid source of depth scoring, as evidenced by their GF%.
Gagner is one of the team’s four positive players in terms of plus/minus (plus-2) and he’s been an underrated defensive star for the Red Wings this season. Namestnikov has played a solid two-way game for Detroit this season, though his offensive production isn’t exactly where you might want it to be. Their collective solid play in the defensive zone prevents the opposition from cashing in on their opportunities, and their shared ability to put the puck in good spots in the offensive zone allows for a strong cycle and legitimate scoring chances. Not bad for a collective cap-hit of just $2.85 million.
The only downside of this duo’s solid production is that it seems destined to be broken up by this season’s trade deadline. Gagner is on an expiring contract and could provide solid depth for a contending team, doing the same things he’s been doing for Detroit. Namestnikov still has another year on his deal, and it will behoove Yzerman and the Red Wings to find him someone for next season that he can play off of as well as he has with Gagner.
The Next Great Duo?
The thing about the Red Wings as they are currently constructed is that most of roster won’t be around in the next few years. The nature of a rebuild is shipping out veterans and turning the team over to the organization’s young talent. So while there are some potent pairings on this season’s roster, it’s best not to get too attached to these specific combinations. Other combinations are on the horizon, and they have the potential to do even more damage than the duos listed here.
What this information can do is provide a guideline for what the Red Wings’ lineup should look like as we enter the final quarter of the season. The Wings have been winning games on a more regular basis lately, and the lineup has had a big role in producing that success. Winning breeds confidence and growth, so look for Blashill to keep these duos together as much as he can going forward.
Numbers and stats from Natural Stat Trick
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