The Dallas Stars and Anaheim Ducks entered the 2014 offseason looking to bolster their top-six forward groups, and both teams were able to address the need impressively via trade and free agency.
In late June, the Ducks acquired 2011 Selke Trophy winner Ryan Kesler from Vancouver in a multiplayer package that included Nick Bonino and Luca Sbisa as part of the return. Then, after the initial spending spree of free agency had cooled down, Anaheim was able to sign two-time 50-goal man Dany Heatley to a one-year, $1.0 million contract.
The Stars were similarly active. On July 1, Dallas sent a trio of players, including promising winger Alex Chiasson, to Ottawa as part of a deal to acquire star centre Jason Spezza. The same day, it signed free-agent winger Ales Hemsky, who had great chemistry with Spezza on the Senators.
Both teams started off with an impressive duo of forwards.
Anaheim was adding to a group that included 2014 Hart finalist Ryan Getzlaf and 2011 Hart and Richard Trophy winner Corey Perry. Dallas’ younger tandem is less established but also impressive; both Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn finished in the top 10 in NHL scoring in 2013-14.
Now that the wheeling and dealing has given way to the slower days of summer, which team has the better group of top-six forwards?
The Ducks' top line will be pretty clearly powered by the Getzlaf/Perry duo, while Kesler will likely end up centering the second line. Bruce Boudreau’s affinity for line juggling and a seemingly endless supply of useful (if not overpowering) wingers ensure that the rest of the group will never be static, but if we’re projecting for opening night, the group might look something like this:
|Left Wing||Centre||Right Wing|
|Dany Heatley||Ryan Getzlaf||Corey Perry|
|Andrew Cogliano||Ryan Kesler||Jakob Silfverberg|
(There are a lot of other things that could happen. Andrew Cogliano could get bumped back to centre; any of Patrick Maroon, Kyle Palmieri, Matt Beleskey, Devante Smith-Pelly or Emerson Etem could force their way up the depth chart with a strong camp. The only certainty is uncertainty.)
Whoever ends up being their winger, the Getzlaf/Perry duo will drive results.
With an assortment of personnel, they’ve collected 53.0 percent of the Corsis and 58.6 percent of the goals in five-on-five situations over the last three seasons (for the shooting percentage skeptics, this pattern goes back for as long as we have data). Not only do they dominate the possession battle against top opponents, in other words; they also finish chances at a far higher rate than the opposition does.
Heatley’s an uninspired choice to join them in some ways and was a disaster in Minnesota last season, but he’s a high-percentage finisher. Even if he’s only average, this will be an excellent unit; if he’s worse than that, he won’t stay in the lineup for very long.
Kesler is sort of the mirror image of Perry/Getzlaf in that he’s been a 53.5 percent Corsi player over the last three seasons but has seen his line score just 51.4 percent of the goals. He was a perfectly mediocre offensive threat at five-on-five last year—for a Ducks comparable, Saku Koivu had 25 even-strength points in 65 games; Kesler had 26 in 77—and while he’s primed for a bit of a bounce back, he’s not the kind of guy likely to put up big totals at evens in the future (though he does his share on the power play).
Given that Cogliano is an established player with a fairly middling history in terms of possession numbers and the other options are either callow youth or veterans with warts, one wonders whether the Ducks are going to get the kind of offensive punch they’re looking for from this line. With Kesler at centre they should at least tread water against good players, but this might not be a unit that really makes hay in the role.
While it’s difficult to divine exact line combinations in Anaheim, the Stars’ units seem pretty predictable, with Spezza and Hemsky playing so well together and all three members of last year’s top line together again:
|Left Wing||Centre||Right Wing|
|Jamie Benn||Tyler Seguin||Valeri Nichushkin|
|Erik Cole||Jason Spezza||Ales Hemsky|
The terrifying thing about that top line is that all three of those guys might have more to give. Benn is the greybeard, turning 25 later this week; Seguin is 22 and Valeri Nichushkin just 19.
Last season, the Seguin/Benn pairing was dominant, collecting 53.0 percent of Corsi events and 66.7 percent of all goals. It’s the third season in a row that Seguin’s team has outscored the opposition by at least a 3-2 margin while he’s on the ice (though playing in Boston had something to do with that). It's already a lethal five-on-five unit, and Nichushkin has only scratched the surface of his potential.
Spezza doesn’t have youth on his side, but he’s also a dominant five-on-five talent. When healthy, he’s consistently been among the NHL’s top-20 forwards in terms of points/hour at even strength; that’s first-line-level scoring. Hemsky’s had some rough patches the last couple of years as he’s soldiered on through the Oilers’ endless rebuild but looked rejuvenated in Ottawa, scoring at nearly a point-per-game pace.
The problem, of course, is Erik Cole.
He’s had wretched numbers in pretty much every category for the last two seasons and shouldn’t be in an NHL top six. Spezza and Hemsky might be able to carry him, but it’s not a position of strength. He’s been bad enough that it’s hard not to wonder if a minor league journeyman like Colton Sceviour gets a shot.
Still, it’s hard not to prefer the Stars’ top six here. If Getzlaf and Perry maintain an advantage over Benn and Seguin—which is a pretty big if—it isn’t likely to be a big one. Spezza’s recent history is significantly more impressive than Kesler’s, and in Hemsky, he’s likely to have better help than the Ducks’ pivot is going to get.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.