Over the course of the last week we have witnessed the resurgence, or maybe just the reemergence, of the Schenn/Tarasenko/Schwartz line. The line has chemistry, energy, and clearly a buzz about it. We watched them basically go off in the game against the LA Kings on March 10th and then continue the pattern into the Ducks game on March 13th. Watching this line and the success they have has to get one thinking, is this the perfect forward line? I’ll attempt to answer that here.
To start we must ask what is the perfect line? What does a forward line need in order to be great, to be perfect? Well, first it needs three forwards, one Center and two wingers. Those three players also need to have chemistry, to work well together, and to have the ability to basically read each other’s minds; to know what one is trying to do and go to the place that is most advantageous to help him out. The second thing is that all three of them must complement each other. A line of three shooters will never work as there will never be a setup. In the same thought, a line of all playmakers and no shooters will forever find themselves trying to set up a shot that is never taken and a line of three puck possession guys will forever be fighting over who gets the puck. In essence, for a line to be great, a balance must be struck. The line must have three guys, which all complement each other, while simultaneously working well, and being able to read each other’s game. A perfect line is the line in which every possible aspect of the game is covered by at least one guy on the line. A perfect forward line consists of the following things:
- Faceoff Winner – This is a guy who consistently and regularly wins face-offs. He doesn’t have to be perfect, but if you can start with the puck more often than not, it makes every part of the game to follow easier.
- Skater – Most people take this to mean a guy who can skate fast, but it’s more than that. In fact, it’s more about quickness or acceleration, than actual speed. The skater is usually smaller, he’s agile, he can start, stop, turn on a dime, and can do so faster than most other forwards or defensemen. He is usually good at drawing penalties and it helps if he is a good puck handler, although that’s not necessarily necessary.
- Sniper – This one is pretty self-explanatory, the sniper is the scorer, the shooter, the guy that puts the puck in the net.
- Puck Hound – This one can also go by the name Retriever or possession guy, but it basically amounts to this. This guy wants the puck. He wants to have it and he wants to go get it, but he also knows how to handle it, and what to do with it once he has it. The Puck hound is the most important person on the line and also both the hardest player to find and the least recognized by most.
- Playmaker – This isn’t just about passing. The playmaker is more about vision. He knows where to go, when to go, and what to do when he gets there. It might be making the perfect pass to the sniper to score, or just moving slightly to bail out the puck hound when he gets in real trouble, or it could be moving into the right possession to get a shot off or keep a cycle moving. The playmaker does all of this.
- Grit – In years past I would have picked a big man for this one, but the game has changed. I’m not going to say for the better or for worse, it’s just changed. In previous years you needed a big man that could lay a hit on opponents and make them hurt, the kind of guy that makes defenders check over the shoulder before going into the corner, but today that’s not really necessary. Now a days this is more about most of the players on the team being tough and willing. The kind of guys that are tough enough to take a hit, hold off defenders, or willing to do both, and capable of hitting, getting hit by, and holding off guys that are bigger than they are. While size is nice and helpful with this particular attribute, it’s not the most important thing, as anyone who’s watched Patrik Berglund’s career with the Blues can attest.
In order for a forward line to be perfect, it must have a player that represents all six of these things. Now anyone that can do basic math will tell you that that means that every player must possess at least 2 of those attributes and sometimes more, but who possesses what, is not exactly important. What is important is that all six attributes are on the line, and the Schenn/Tarasenko/Schwartz line has them all.
The faceoffs are, of course, the responsibility of the centerman, Schenn. Now Brayden Schenn is no faceoff expert. In all honesty, this is the one place where this line could stand to improve. Schenn is only a career 45.9% faceoff taker, but this year he is actually up on that number at 47.7% which is a poor 78th overall in the NHL. However, he has also taken the 18th most faceoffs of anyone in the NHL this season, 1242, more than he has ever taken in a single season before. In fact it roughly doubles the most he’s ever taken in a season before, 685 in 2013-14 with Philly, and that year he only had a 43.2% winning percentage. Faceoffs are a hard skill to learn, basically, they can only really be learned in actual games. It is very difficult to practice faceoffs outside of a game situation because, unlike shooting or skating, they are not a skill that can be improved through constant repetition. A faceoff is a one on one match between two players. Everyone has their own style and tactic going into a faceoff and no matter how deep your team is with faceoff takers, eventually they are all going to learn each other’s moves. That makes practicing faceoffs with teammates difficult after a while, because the centermen all know what their opponent is going to do. In game, against an opponent you don’t face every single day, the faceoff is entirely different and as such, the only real way to improve the skill is to take more faceoffs in games. This is by far and away Schenn’s best season on the dots and it would appear that he is actually improving as the number of faceoffs he takes climbs. He will never be as good as Paul Stastny was at it, Stastny has a career 53.9% and this year is at 54.7%, split between St. Louis and Winnipeg, but Schenn does bring more to the position overall than Stastny did, he is much younger and a little cheaper, at least right now. Also, it must be taken into account that Jaden Schwartz is a career 48.5% faceoff taker in his limited action. This adds a little bit of backup to Schenn, should he be thrown from the faceoff, and gives you a decent chance to still come away with the puck, despite the fact that Schwartz is a little down this year. One must also take into account that only about 42% of NHL shifts actually start on a faceoff, meaning that winning faceoffs, while important, is not all important, at least at regular strength.
Next up is the Skater. That trait is held by Jaden Schwartz who is also the puck hound. This is the part of the line that is highly underrated. It doesn’t show up in the stat sheets or the scoring sheets, it’s not flashy, and it’s not necessarily as well compensated as other parts of the game, but it is the most important player on the ice, a fact that is all the more obvious with Schwartz finishing second in the NHLPA voting of most underrated players. Schwartz has the uncanny and almost unmatched, at least on the team, ability to go and get the puck and then keep it just long enough. Pucks end up in the corners in hockey, whether they are dumped in by a teammate or deflected there by a missed or saved shot, the puck naturally goes to the corner. Having a player that is both willing and able to go to the corner, get the puck, hold it there to draw in defenders, and then get it out is priceless. Schwartz possesses all of those abilities along with the willingness to take a hit or dish one out when necessary, but we’ll get back to that later. When the puck winds up in the corner, however it gets there, Schwartz can go and get it. He can switch directions and move on defenders skating around and even through them at times, and he can do all of that without getting pinned to the boards and thus neutralized. Then once he has drawn two or more defenders to him, he can make that one move that gets him free from them for a split second and make a pass. That pass can go to anyone, but the fact that he makes the pass is what matters. That pass is what throws the defense into a scramble and while it often doesn’t directly result in a goal, it is the start of one. We tend to measure players on how many points they get and goals they score, and because of that, Schwartz’s work often goes unheralded. Often that initial pass out of the corner or the trap doesn’t directly end up in a goal. Two or three more passes must get made before a shot gets taken or a goal gets scored. If those passes don’t go back to Schwartz, then his name doesn’t appear on the score sheet for the assist, but he is very often the one responsible for either starting the play that led to the goal, or making the crucial pass that ultimately leads to it. In essence, Schwartz is ultimately responsible for far more goals than his assist or point totals would lead one to believe.
The playmaker position is the next to come into play. The playmaker is another of the less celebrated positions in hockey. Playmakers tend to be more passers than shooters, and thus they don’t get the glory of scoring the goal themselves. However, without the assist, the goal wouldn’t happen at all and thus a good playmaker is needed for any line to truly be great. As I said above, this is not just a guy that is good at passing, while that is a part of it, it is more about hockey sense. In a sense, the playmaker is the guy that is in the right place at the right time and is good at being there. Schenn fits this role perfectly. He doesn’t stand still in front of the net nor behind it, like his predecessors on the top line did, he moves almost constantly. He is becoming more and more adept and figuring out where Schwartz needs him when he is drawing defenders to the corner, or where he needs to go to get the crucial redirect for a goal, or where Tarasenko is so that he can receive a pass and immediately fire it to him. Being a playmaker is more about being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing while you are there. It is a skill that is hard to recognize and even harder to execute, but it is one that is clearly apparent in Schenn’s game.
Next we have the sniper. This is probably the most self-explanatory of the positions and it is also the most expensive. The sniper scores goals, plain and simple, and Tarasenko is the sniper on this line. Goals do show up on the score sheet and because we seem to pay more and more attention to the stats that are seen on that sheet as opposed to the ones that aren’t, guys like Tarasenko become more and more expensive as they prove their ability in this role. Tarasenko’s shot is lethal. His accuracy can be criticized and often should be, and his game leaves a lot to be desired on the defensive side, but that shot cannot be questioned. The downside to Tarasenko is that he doesn’t really possess a natural ability to do anything else on this list, save grit. He isn’t a particularly great skater, he’s not really a puck hound, his passing leaves a lot to be desired, and he prefers to shoot rather than pass unless the pass is obviously the better option. That is dangerous when a goal can more easily be scored by him passing to a more open man, however, it is also apparent that both Schwartz and Schenn lack the instinct to shoot or the ability to do so anywhere near as well as Tarasenko, and when Tarasenko is not there, they lack that killer instinct. The shots that are taken are fewer and farther in between and nowhere near as well placed. When push comes to shove, Tarasenko is probably the easiest player on this line to replace, but he would also be the most expensive to replace.
Finally we have grit. Now in years past, as I said above, this would have been given to the big man or the checker, but the game has changed and thus the name has changed with it. Today, this is not just about hitting, but about strength and the willingness to get in and tussle with guys that are bigger and stronger than you. It’s about hitting the guy that’s got six inches on you, or standing in front of the goalie when a defender twice your size is trying to push you out of the way. It is about being willing to take a hit from a bigger guy to make a play and about being willing to throw a hit on a guy that is bigger than you to try and get a puck. And yes, it is about being willing to drop the gloves when the need arises. That fact applies to all three guys on this line. Schwartz never shies away from delivering a hit in the offensive zone and that fact has allowed him to be a very effective fore checker as well as being the go to guy for retrieving pucks. He is also capable of holding off larger opponents, sometimes more than one, and keep possession of the puck through taking a hit, being pinned to the boards, or maneuvering his way out of a corner trap or into the offensive zone. Tarasenko, while not the largest guy in the world, is incredibly strong for his size. We’ve all seen him take a puck one handed around the outside of a defender, while simultaneously holding off said defender with the other hand, and the defender basically has to take a penalty to stop him, all because of his strength. Schenn has no problem putting himself in front of the net and fighting off larger defensemen for the position and both Tarasenko and Schenn have done their fair share of going into the dirty areas to track pucks down, especially when both are on the line. None of these guys fit the traditional role of the big man, a role David Backes used to fill perfectly, but together, the three of them are one of the strongest and grittiest top lines in the league.
Having all six of those factors represented is not enough though. Being a perfect line also requires chemistry. It requires three guys to be on the same wavelength, to almost be able to read each other’s minds. These three guys are that. It can be seen both by how well they perform when together and how much they slip when apart. The Blues’ biggest drop-off in play this season happened directly following the loss of Jaden Schwartz in December. He was out for over two months and the Blues’ play collapsed with him out, especially Schenn and Tarasenko, who both went through extended scoring slumps in his absence. It was also apparent when Tarasenko was hurt last weekend. Without the sniper, the line looked less lethal. Sure, both Schwartz and Schenn scored goals, but they also looked like they were making Steen look good the entire game, and neither of them possess the same shooting ability that Tarasenko has, the ability to strike fear into goalies. When the three of them are together they are great, take one away and the line weakens and weakens obviously. It is also obvious in their play. Their passes don’t look telegraphed or planned, but rather natural. Like the passer knows where the receiver will be and puts the puck right in place for him. They know when they are pulling defenders away from their line mates and more importantly the line mates are able to go to the right spot to both receive a pass and create an opportunity. Basically, these three like playing with each other, they are happy together, and they get each other’s game to an almost incredible extent. They were doing it in October and now they are doing in March.
Put all of this together, the six factors, the three men, and the chemistry and you get a very good system. The kind of thing where even if you knew what they were going to do, you wouldn’t be able to stop it. Here’s how it works. The line gains the zone and gets the puck to Schwartz. This may come in the form of a dump in, it may come as a pass into the zone, it may come as an entry and then a pass or it may come as a pass to Schwartz who carries it in. Regardless, Schwartz gets the puck. He then draws two men to him, sucks the D away from their men, and then maneuvers his way out of the trap and fires off a pass to the open man. The defense, now out of position from trying to trap Schwartz, shifts over to cover the open man, and the puck moves until an open shot is had. That is good offense in and of itself, but there’s more. Assuming the puck gets on net and isn’t frozen, this line will then chase the rebound. If they don’t get it right away, Tarasenko or Schwartz will push the defender that does get it, trap him deep and steal it. Then the puck goes back to Schwartz, and the whole process repeats. Essentially they play the perfect hockey strategy, get the puck, get it in the offensive zone, and don’t let it leave. This fact is most obvious in their possession measures, Schenn as a 54.1 Corsi For % (CF%), Tarasenko has a 53.3 CF% and Schwartz has a 56.2 CF%. All of this means that at even strength, these guys have the puck far more than they don’t, and they are taking more shots than are being taken against them. Also, don’t forget that those stats aren’t just for when these three were together, as Schenn and Tarasenko spent large swaths of time on separate lines while Schwartz was out, and the line was not brought back together as soon as he was healthy again.
This is a truly great line in the NHL and they are showing that, especially in the last few weeks. Going back just to the LA Kings game on March 10th, Schwartz has 3 goals, 9 points and is +4, Schenn has 1 goal, 7 points and is +3 and Tarasenko has 5 goals, 6 points and is +2. That is a combined 9 goals, 22 points, and +9 for the three of them. That is in 7 games for Tarasenko and 9 for the other two, and 8 of those 9 games have been wins. Add in the Blues’ early season performance and a fact emerges, when this line is together, the team plays better and the Blues win. When one or more of these guys are hurt or the line is not together, the Blues don’t win. This year their most productive and exciting periods have been with this line together and if nothing else, that solidifies the line as great. Simply put, they make the rest of the team better with their play.
Now is the line absolutely perfect? No. Schenn needs to get better at faceoffs, Tarasenko still leaves a lot to be desired on defense, and he also still needs to learn a little more shot discipline. It also wouldn’t hurt if Schenn and Schwartz were better shooters and more willing to shoot in all situations, but that brings up another advantage of this line. Schenn is 26, Schwartz is 25 and Tarasenko is 26, there are still a few years for these guys to improve. Could the line be improved by bringing in other players? Maybe. Of course everyone is going to throw out the name John Tavares and he would definitely be a better center than Schenn, but at the same time, with these three playing so well together, the question must also be asked, do you really want to break this up? Would it not be better to leave well enough alone and let these three stay and grow, at least for the next couple of years together? Regardless of one’s thoughts on that issue, you can’t deny that this line is clicking. They are scoring, and they are working as a team in a way we haven’t seen out of a top line in years. Add to that their age and the fact that they are all relatively cheap for their current production, and you get a perfect storm. A young, talented, well put together line, that has team friendly contracts and like playing together. This is close to a perfect line and as of right now, it looks like that line, backed by some great performances by a few of our veterans, might just manage to carry this team into the playoffs. Where they go from there is still up in the air, but I for one would love to see where this can take us, not just this year, but in the next few years to come.