Joe Pavelski, and Evgeni Malkin Have Played Third Line Center: Why not Jason Spezza?
It was good enough for Joe Pavelski and Evgeni Malkin. Why shouldn't it be good enough for Jason Spezza?
Early in 2013, Todd McLellan decided to think outside the box with his then San Jose Sharks. Joe Thornton, Tomas Hertl, and Brent Burns formed one line. Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau, and Tyler Kennedy formed another. And on the third line was Joe Pavelski, next to Tommy Wingels and Matt Nieto.
They were dubbed the 'American Express'. As in, America: F' yea.
They didn't stick around the whole season, and didn't stick around for very long in general. But it was a dramatic example of how thin definitions of "checking lines", "scoring lines", and "energy lines" are. This is certainly the case for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Right now they're playing Evgeni Malkin with Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust. Granted, you could argue that he's not actually playing "third line center". But the general point about spreading depth remains. Nick Bonino is centering a line with Phil Kessel on his right: a line so good it has its own shirt. Semantics, this is not. Which begs the question: why not Jason Spezza? Dallas is one of the few teams in the league that can compete with Pittsburgh's depth.
With the extinction of goons, hockey has reached a point where no roster spot can be wasted. Goalies are now genetically engineered to be as wide and tall as the nets they defend. Each line must maximize zone time. That means your 4th line is suddenly more important in getting favorable zone starts for the scorers. And checking lines can't just play a good PK. In other words, lines should no longer reflect a hierarchy of talent. Instead they should reflect the optimal scope of talent.
Spezza Already Plays "Third Line" Minutes
Jason Spezza averaged 16.31 of time on ice for the Dallas Stars during the regular season. That's only 9 seconds more than Cody Eakin, who has played the traditional checking line center. Granted, Eakin kind of lost that checking line center role to Radek Faksa. However, Eakin still had his checking line center role for the 2014-2015 season. There he averaged 17:11 of TOI versus Spezza's 17:13. When you're matching a role player up against your opponent's best player, it's not like they're gonna suddenly stop playing their top scorers. So naturally, checking lines end up logging heavy minutes. Does this mean I want Spezza playing up against the league's best scorers? No.
Spezza at 3C Doesn't Entail the Absence of a Checking Center
Radek Faksa isn't going anywhere. That much is obvious. I won't rehash my argument to try Jamie Benn with Faksa. But I will say this. Faksa's Fenwick For Percentage, which measures shots attempts against without including blocked shots (to approximate scoring chances), was second best on the team next to Jason Spezza. What we're seeing from Faksa is good, modern day defense: good positioning and stickwork in the defensive zone with the skating and vision to transition for chances in the offensive zone. As much as we all like Antoine Roussel and Ales Hemsky, I'd rather have Jamie Benn next to Faksa to finish those chances than either of those two.
Philadelphia has found success sticking Wayne Simmonds next to Sean Couturier for this reason: a great checking line center isn't just doing the right things in their own zone. They're creating a bridge from one zone to the next, turning good defense into efficient offense. The counterargument, that Benn is being buried in his own zone, falls apart in light of Faksa's ability to transition from one zone to the next. According to Behind the Net, Faksa's 41 Percent offensive zone start percentage didn't affect his ability to end up in the offensive zone, where he finished at a rate of 56 Percent.
What Should the Lines Look Like?
The Fak' Em line has been great. But Hemsky will be 33 before the next season starts. It'll be his contract season, and with the way he's played, and the credit given to him for his role on Dallas' quality third line, certain teams may want him bad enough to give Nill the magic beans he's so good at getting in these deals. However, I'm not advocating for trading Hemsky. I'd like to see him be part of a quality run next year just as he was this year. That's not my point. My point is that Ales Hemsky is not the future. Faksa is.
Janmark and Spezza should stay together. Putting both on a line with Hemsky was successful in the regular season: the trio combined for a collective 61 Percent Corsi For rating per Corsica Hockey in 89 minutes together.
Benn and Sharp proved effective together even without a number one center between them. But so did Sharp and Seguin. It's quite possible that Benn/Faksa could carry a line the way Seguin and Sharp could. Maybe Seguin and Sharp excel with Valeri Nichushkin on their right (Sharp plays left wing very well). Or maybe Seguin and Sharp excel with Jason Dickinson doing a Janmark impression the way he did with Jason Spezza. Whatever the case, there are plenty of options.
Does this mean Cody Eakin plays 4th line minutes? Maybe. Maybe he gets packaged into a trade for a goalie. Maybe he could be a left winger next to Seguin. Dallas will have plenty of options to be creative with their 4th line; especially if Patrick Eaves and/or Colton Sceviour are resigned. But even if they aren't, Brett Ritchie, and Curtis McKenzie have been ready for awhile.
My personal opinion is that defining lines by their roles limits the scope of what we assume they can do. Call three amigos a "checking line", and maybe you ignore the Ned Nederlander in front of you just because he's not physical enough (a team that successfully used Hemsky in a checking role should certainly know better). Call a line a "scoring line", and maybe you overestimate who generates offense and who doesn't.
Dallas has the ability to optimize a wider scope of talent at forward than most teams. As a thought experiment, I think it's fun to ponder their forward infinite. But I like the potential images of each opponent having a defensive pair that must deal with either Benn, Seguin, or Spezza even more.