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What is first-line production in the modern NHL?

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Fans are always talking about acquiring a 'first-line' scorer, but what does that really mean in today's NHL?

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The 1980s were the worst thing to ever happen to the perception of hockey fans. For a large majority of media, hockey in the 80s was what they grew up on, and because hockey for them is intrinsically tied to that time, expectations for point production for top players is completely out of whack with reality.

A huge percentage of fans and media still believe that first liners need to be point per game players, even though there are only a handful of players of that calibre in the league, and 90 slots for first-line players. So what made a first liner, or a second liner even, in 2014-15? And how do the Montreal Canadiens stack up? Going by point production, you'd be surprised

First-Line Centers

All situations range: 55 points to 86 points
Even strength range: 39 points to 60 points

By definition there are 30 centers in the NHL who are first liners, and the top scorers just aren't putting the puck in the net at the same frequency as they used to. The Canadiens do actually have a center who fit in this group this season, with Tomas Plekanec registering 40 even strength points (28th), and 60 total points (25th). While you can say that Plekanec isn't a high-end first line center, it would be entirely inaccurate to say he's not a first line center, especially since he takes some of the toughest minutes of anyone in that top-30 grouping.

First-Line Left Wingers

All situations range: 42 points to 87 points
Even strength range: 33 points to 59 points

The Canadiens have two first line left wingers, with Max Pacioretty being at an elite level with 51 even strength points (3rd), and 67 total points (6th), and Alex Galchenyuk at 34 even strength points (28th) and 46 total points (26th). Galchenyuk's ability to produce at a first-line rate with second-line minutes may be one of the main reasons why the Canadiens are hesitant to shift him to center, however generally speaking, centers produce more points overall.

First-Line Right Wingers

All situations range: 42 points to 81 points
Even strength range: 29 points to 55 points

The Canadiens once again have a player in this range, with Brendan Gallagher emerging this season as a first liner. Gallagher notched 39 even strength points (17th), and 47 total points (24th). As we discussed before, Gallagher isn't an elite producer, but he's possibly on his way to being one, especially if his powerplay work catches up to what he can do at even strength.

Second-Line Centers

All situations range: 39 points to 55 points
Even strength range: 31 points to 39 points

Most people likely wouldn't believe it if you told them an average second-line center is only a 45-point player, but that's the reality of the NHL. The Canadiens had one player who fit this category last season, with David Desharnais registering 37 points at even strength (34th overall, fourth among second-line centers), and 48 total points (40th overall, 10th among second-line centers). Unfortunately, Desharnais was given first-line ice time, and extremely favourable situations to score, so these results are still disappointing. But even so, his point production is that of a good second liner.

Second-Line Left Wingers

All situations range: 26 points to 42 points
Even strength range: 22 points to 32 points

The Canadiens had no one in this group, which worked out since Galchenyuk scored like a first liner, but most good teams have players on the third line who can produce like a bad second liner, which may give you a hint about the trouble in Montreal.

Second-Line Right Wingers

All situations range: 26 points to 41 points
Even strength range: 19 points to 29 points

The Canadiens had one player in this group, and you guessed it, it's Dale Weise. You're reading that right. Weise's season was far more luck than skill and isn't going to be repeated, but he spent most of it in the top-six, and rewarded Therrien's decision with a shocking 29 even-strength points (35th overall, fifth among second line right wingers), and 29 overall points (53rd overall, 23rd among second line right wingers) since he didn't factor on special teams. In many ways, Weise's outlier season saved the Habs' lack of depth in the regular season.

Third-Line Centers

All situations range: 31 points to 39 points
Even strength range: 24 points to 30 points

Lars Eller should make this list, but he didn't, largely due to a lack of assists. That will lead to many people saying he lacks hockey sense, when really he lacks linemates. Eller ranked 60th among centers in total goals, and tied for 34th in even strength goals, he's got offensive skill, but his points weren't up to third-line center par last year.

Third-Line Left Wingers

All situations range: 12 points to 25 points
Even strength range: 11 points to 20 points

The Canadiens had two players in this range, emphasis on had, because Jiri Sekac was among the best third-line wingers in the league at 20 even-strength points (63rd overall, third among third-line left wingers), and 23 total points (65th overall, fifth among third-line left wingers) but they traded him. Brandon Prust also stuck in this category, with 17 even strength points (71st overall, 11th among third line left wingers) and 18 total points (75th overall, 15th among third line left wingers).

Third-Line Right Wingers

All situations range: 12 points to 25 points
Even strength range: 11 points to 19 points

The Canadiens once again had two players in this range, the problem being that neither of them produced in that role. P.-A. Parenteau struggled with injuries for most of the year, but played a top-six role when healthy. Parenteau's 18 even-strength points (64th overall, fourth among third-line right wingers) and 22 total points (65th overall, fifth among third-line right wingers) were strong third-line numbers, but he played less than 100 minutes on the third line. Devante Smith-Pelly also put up solid third-line numbers, registering 17 even strength points (69th overall, ninth among third-line right wingers), and 20 total points (69th overall, ninth among third-line right wingers), but only one of those points came while playing on the third line in Montreal, with the other two occurring on the so-called first line after Pacioretty was injured.

Do the Canadiens have depth?

We know that the Canadiens don't play a system that caters to offensive creativity, or goals, or even shots on goal, so it's tough to judge how offensively capable the team truly is. However just judging based on the rankings here, the Canadiens have too many of their top end players at the lower edges of their tiers (Plekanec, Gallagher, Galchenyuk, Eller), and too many third-line forwards, or at least players that produce like third liners.

Keep in mind that these rankings don't account for games played, and the Canadiens were by far the healthiest team in the NHL last season. They had just a single player miss major time in Parenteau.

The Canadiens could always use an additional scorer, especially if they plan to move Galchenyuk to center, but the key to improving their offense isn't just personnel moves, it's a system change. You can't score if you don't put shots on net, and the Canadiens simply don't. And even when they do, they're most often from the perimeter.