If the Pittsburgh Penguins taught us only one thing last season, it was that in order to win the Stanley Cup, you have to have an offensively talented third line. The HBK line, ie, Carl Hagelin, Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino, may really have been what put the Pens over the top. Yes, of course, there was Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But those players on separate lines could be somewhat be held in check. Those players, plus an effective third line, was deadly.
No one previously thought of Kessel as a third line player, but that is exactly where he was most effective. Right now, he is playing alongside Crosby, and although the Pens are very competitive, and Kessel is on a record pace scoringwise, both Hagelin and Bonino’s production are way down, and the team does not look anywhere as near dominant as it did last season.
Having the players to fill the top six and then put a good third line on the ice too is not an easy feat in this cap world. But, it can be done. Enter the Rangers third line-the GHM line, consisting of Kevin Hayes Michael Grabner and JT Miller. Their line accounted for seven of the 15 points the Rangers accumulated in their 5-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers last night. And over the last three games, since Head Coach Alain Vigneault put the line together, the three forwards have posted 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists).
But it is more than just points recorded that is of value here. The success of the third line also allowed AV to, in the third period, bench those players in the top six (Jimmy Vesey, Chris Kreider, and Mika Zibanejad) who were less effective. Kreider and Zibanejad were only on the ice approximately 13 minutes each in the game, and Vesey’s TOI was 10:49 last night. With a compact schedule this week, four games in six nights, resting three of his top six players could make a big difference.
In fact, against the very talented Edmonton Oilers, ice time among forwards was very spread out. That is, with the exception of Mats Zuccarello, whose TOI was 21:40. Zuccarello was all over the ice last night; although he did not contribute much offensively, he delivered four hits, used his stick very effectively and managed two takeaways (I think that was another but it did not make the official stats). In any case, this third line is giving the coaching staff flexibility, which is so needed at this point, one quarter of the way through the season.
When asked about his line, Grabner said that each player, “just bring[s] a different element to the line … when we are not scoring, we try to be responsible in our own end and don’t make too many mistakes to feed their energy.” There is no question that each player does bring a different element. What Grabner brings is speed. The Rangers knew that going in. What they hoped for when they signed the UFA this summer was more. Grabner once was a 34 goal scorer (with the Isles in 2010-11). The Rangers were hoping that the 29-year old would give them close to 20 goals this season. That may be what he gives the Rangers, but it is just as possible that he pots more goals than that. With six goals in just 11 games and this line just hitting its stride, it could be a lot more than 20.
But, it is not just Grabner with this potential. We really don’t know what the 24-year old Hayes’s upside is. During the last two seasons, Hayes recorded 17 and 14 goals, respectively, but he is playing much better this season, and it is certainly reasonable to think that he may hit 20 goals at some point.
But the player with the largest potential is Miller. Still only 23, Miller can put up points, but also does so much more. He knows how to be effective in the offensive zone. He has improved his hockey smarts. And his skating. He’s got great hands and sees the ice extremely well. He can be many things–but most of all, he is the quintessential third line player in the new NHL. Not a star on his own, but a complementary player who is worth his weight in gold.
Now, AV and staff may move the guys around as the season moves on, but for now, the team has found the magic potion. GHM belongs together.