The biggest constant during the Vegas Golden Knights’ two-year existence has been their first line. William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith have taken the ice together in nearly every game and played consistently strong hockey alongside one another.
After the 2019 trade deadline, however, the Golden Knights suddenly found themselves with another line worthy of top billing. Mark Stone’s arrival—and subsequent placement next to Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny—has given Vegas a top-six forward group that’s the envy of the NHL.
The toughest part now? Figuring out which one is the first line, which one is the second and if it even matters.
“It means absolutely nothing,” Pacioretty says. “You have to draw up lines somewhere. We’re a four-line team—probably the only genuine four-line team in the league that rolls out four lines, doesn’t really give preferential treatment to other lines. No one feels like they’re better than or more important than someone else on the team.”
The Karlsson-centered trio still gets the official top-line status, but that doesn’t seem to matter much to the players involved. They don’t want to single out one line over the other, preferring to defer to a 1A/1B mindset. That leaves the numbers to tell the actual story, and they tend to favor the Stone, Pacioretty and Stastny unit.
Together, that trio has averaged 11:54 of 5-on-5 ice time per game with a 61.84 Corsi percentage—a measure of all shots taken by both teams, regardless of whether the puck reaches the net. Those numbers are a bit better than what Marchessault, Karlsson and Smith have posted together—at 11:04 of average ice time and a 53.97 Corsi percentage.
Put simply, Vegas Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant has entrusted Stastny’s crew with more ice time, and that triumvirate has done more with it. “Truthfully, there’s no second line for me,” Gallant said. “I think they’re both doing their job real well. It’s about consistency, and I think both of them are top lines.”
It’s quite the luxury for Vegas. The Golden Knights’ arguably possess the best top-two line combination in the Western Conference, posing a nightmare matchup for potential playoff opponents. If San Jose uses its best defensive unit to slow down Karlsson’s trio, for instance, Stastny’s group will be freer to open up the ice.
Karlsson, Marchessault and Smith spearheaded last year’s run to the Stanley Cup Final. They won’t have to shoulder as much of the load this season. Expect the crux of Vegas’ offensive attack to come from both of its top lines, no matter who gets the first-line billing.