There is little debate, based on the stats alone, as to which lines have been the best in the NHL this season. Through action of Jan. 9, the Colorado Avalanche's top trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog have combined for 36 goals at 5-on-5, with another 29 goals on the power play. Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames triumvirate of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm have collectively been on the ice for 35 scores at 5-on-5 and 27 more tallies with the man-advantage. No other line is really all that close. After these two lines, the next highest total from any other trio is a mere 41 goals over all on-ice situations.
While these Colorado and Calgary lines lack for nothing when it comes to quality, don't leave out the role that quantity plays in their success. That Avalanche trio easily leads the league in time on ice together (all strengths), at just shy of 800 minutes. Calgary's top line is in second with 657 minutes.
The rest of the field starts to fall off quickly after that: The top line of the Vegas Golden Knights has 611 minutes together, followed quite distantly by the fourth-place top line of the Columbus Blue Jackets, at a mere 500 minutes. In fact, the trio in ninth place in the NHL for total time on ice together this season (John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman) would not even catch Colorado's top line in minutes if you doubled their to-date output of just 389 minutes.
So, what happens if we take minutes into account when we start to consider the true productivity of NHL lines? Looking at 5-on-5 play only, as the fluent nature of most power plays doesn't give a strong baseline, several players stand out as being deserving of closer analysis. Here are a few players I'd like to highlight for fantasy, based upon their current line's (minimum 50 minutes of time on ice together):
Joonas Donskoi, W, San Jose Sharks: The sample size is admittedly on the small side, but the top line in the NHL this season for goals per minute at 5-on-5 is the recently assembled "third" line for the Sharks. Evander Kane, Tomas Hertl and Donskoi are proving to be a dangerous combination that isn't afraid to shoot the puck. Part of their success may well stem from the fact that the Sharks are running out two lines ahead of them on the depth chart, giving opponents other pieces to concern themselves with. All three of these guys have spent some time as top-line wingers for the Sharks, so it's an interesting combination to now see together. It has, obviously, been working so far. This trio had nine goals in 12 games together at 5-on-5 when I compiled these stats on Wednesday -- and then they scored again on Thursday. Donskoi is the only one likely to be available in any fantasy league with depth. Plus, he has eight goals in his past seven games.
Andreas Johnsson, W, Toronto Maple Leafs: The Maple Leafs have two lines in the top-15 this season in terms of goals-per-minute as a trio. If you hadn't just read his name, I doubt Johnsson would be your guess as being the only common thread between those two line combinations. Heck, he might not have been your seventh guess. The trio of Auston Matthews, Kasperi Kapanen and Johnsson have had six goals in about 65 minutes together, while the trio of Tavares, Marner and Johnsson have had six goals in about 75 minutes together. Now, this could be a case in which you could put skates on a cat, push it out on the ice with those superstar players, and the results would be the same. Still, I'm at least interested in Johnsson as we move forward. He's already survived a few depth chart shakeups and his average ice time has climbed in each subsequent month this season. The points aren't there right now, but that doesn't mean they aren't coming if he keeps a plum role.
Dylan Strome, C, Chicago Blackhawks: When playing with Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat, Strome was part of a line that is currently No. 12 in the league in goals-per-minute. That line, however, was also pretty bad defensively, with nine goals for and 11 goals against over 110 minutes. His current line, with Kane and Artem Anisimov, is a little better defensively, but not as explosive offensively -- six goals for, five goals against, about 124 minutes. Still, these two line combinations are among the best Chicago has had to offer this season for goals per minute. There is something to be mined out of Strome and the Blackhawks may be coaxing it out of him. He has 14 points in 22 games for Chicago this season, which puts him right on the precipice of being fantasy-relevant.
Tom Wilson, W, Washington Capitals: The Capitals have two lines in the top 10 for goals-per-minute -- and both of those lines feature Evgeny Kuznetsov and Wilson. With Alex Ovechkin, the duo has six goals in 62 minutes, while with Jakub Vrana they have seven goals in 73 minutes. The current deployment is with Ovechkin joining this pair. Wilson was probably scooped up long ago in your league, but it's worth taking a quick look to make sure, as he is currently available in about 40 percent of ESPN leagues. He's a different player this year, chiefly evidenced by the fact that his next goal will tie his career-high, despite his lengthy suspension to start the season.
Jason Pominville, W, Buffalo Sabres: This is more of a "break glass in case of emergency" recommendation, but it's notable that the No. 2 trio for goals-per-minute in the NHL this season remains Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Pominville -- not Sam Reinhart. The Sabres made the switch away from the veteran Pominville to the youthful Reinhart early in the season. Certainly, Reinhart has been more than passable, but Pominville wasn't too shabby either. With Pominville on the top line, the trio scored 17 goals in 156 minutes, which trails only the Sharks trio for tops in the league. For comparison, with Reinhart on the line, it has scored 17 goals in 274 minutes. I don't see the Sabres looking backwards, as Reinhart is the future, but if something were to befall Reinhart this season, Pominville is an easy spot to fall back on.
Max Comtois, W, Anaheim Ducks: This is a note to file away for next year, as Comtois isn't coming back to save the Ducks. This trio just snuck in under the 50 minutes threshold, as Comtois, Adam Henrique and Jakob Silfverberg are fifth in the NHL in goals-per-minute as a line. They had five goals in 51 minutes together before Comtois was hurt and then loaned to the Canadian world junior team. He will now finish his campaign back in the QMJHL.
Fantasy Forecaster: Jan. 14-20
Teams playing four games: There are 10 teams playing four games next week, which means the schedule is getting a little lighter after some very busy weeks which followed the holiday break. All the four-game teams, the Ducks, Boston Bruins, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild, Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, St. Louis Blues, Maple Leafs and Capitals, have a back-to-back set in the mix.
Teams playing two games: The Golden Knights are the only team playing a reduced two-game schedule this week. I would probably sit Marc-Andre Fleury if I had other options. The two games are against the Winnipeg Jets and Pittsburgh Penguins. Revenge narratives aside, those are two tough offenses.
Highlights from teams playing three games: If there ever were a week to even remotely consider fading Andrei Vasilevskiy, it would be a three-game week featuring the Dallas Stars (with a streaking Tyler Seguin), the Maple Leafs and the Sharks. I'm not advocating for benching him if you have a weekly roster-lock, but approach things with caution and give more consideration to other options if you have them available. ... The Flames, Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers, Ottawa Senators, Penguins and Sharks all play three games with a back-to-back set on tap. As a result, you'll get two starts at most from David Rittich, Matt Murray, Sergei Bobrovsky and Martin Jones. Plan accordingly.
For those new to the forecaster chart, here are some explanations: "O" (offense) and "D" (defense) matchup ratings are based on a scale from 1 (poor matchup) to 10 (excellent matchup) and are calculated using a formula that evaluates the team's season-to-date statistics, its performance in home/road games depending on where the game is to be played, and its opponents' numbers in those categories. The "Ratings" column lists the cumulative rating from 1 to 10 of that week's offensive ("O") and defensive ("D") matchups.
Every week, the focus in the notes below will be mainly on players who are available for potential use. The generalized cutoff is that a player is rostered in less than 50 percent of ESPN leagues, but this space will also include players below 10 percent whenever possible to try to cater to deeper formats.
Boston Bruins: The Bruins are bright red on the Forecaster chart this week, which is always exciting for fantasy purposes. The four-game week for the Bruins includes a home game against the Canadiens, a visit to the Philadelphia Flyers, and then back home for the Blues and New York Rangers. It's tough to find available fantasy assets for a top-heavy team like the Bruins, but Jake DeBrusk is certainly in the conversation. He's maintaining a role on Boston's top power-play unit, which is the second-best in the NHL at home.
New York Islanders: If you aren't already on board the Robin Lehner train, now's your chance to get a ticket. With a little luck, Thomas Greiss will step in for the half of a back-to-back set next week which contains the Capitals, leaving Lehner with the Blues, Devils and Ducks -- all at home. From an offensive perspective, give me a few shares of Brock Nelson, as he is playing in lockstep with Anders Lee both on and off the power play.
Minnesota Wild: Luke Kunin, Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle are pulling off the same kind of run as are Donskoi, Kane and Hertl for the Sharks, just to a lesser extent. They are Minnesota's "third" line in name only, as the trio has become the most-productive line for the Wild. In fact, this No. 3 line checks in at No. 19 in the NHL this season for goals-per-minute with six tallies in 78 minutes together at 5-on-5. The Wild have four games this coming week, with three taking place at home.
Rickard Rakell, W, Anaheim Ducks: Missing more than a month of action, Rakell returned from injury this week. His presence is sorely needed by the slumping Ducks. Playing as Ryan Getzlaf's right-hand man this season, he at least offers a glimmer of hope for Anaheim to start scoring some goals. The month off and a slower pace means Rakell has a long way to go if he hopes to get his third 30-goal season in a row, but he did score 20 times after the start of January last season. Let's not count him out yet.
Frederik Andersen, G, Toronto Maple Leafs: Eyeballing Saturday as his first action since Dec. 22, Andersen is on the mend for the Maple Leafs. With Michael Hutchinson posting significantly better ratios than Garret Sparks through his first four games with Toronto, he may well stick around over Sparks as the backup. It could also mean more rest for Andersen going forward, as Toronto will need him both healthy and fresh come the postseason.