3-on-3: Season subplots, surprising teams, and the death of 1st lines

3-on-3 is one of hockey's most wide open, exciting personnel situations. It also provides a fitting title for our weekly series where three of theScore's NHL writers answer three hockey questions. Submit yours to Justin.Bourne@theScore.com.

What early season subplot has the potential to become a serious problem or issue for an NHL team?

Justin Bourne: The Dallas Stars can’t defend. Kari Lehtonen sees more shots than a walk-in clinic in flu season, which translates into a lot of pucks in the back of the net. They’ve got the firepower to hang in those games in October, but good luck getting out of the West if you can’t play suffocating D. A complete list of the worst 10 teams in goals against per game last season who made playoffs:

...So yeah, they’ve gotta get that tightened up.

Thomas Drance: Mike Smith is a roughly league average NHL starter, which is what Devan Dubnyk was before he fell into the Springfield mystery spot at the start of the 2013-14 season. This year it sort of seems like the shoe is on the other foot, which isn't a huge surprise because goaltending is voodoo and goalie performance is insanely volatile. 

Now Smith is struggling while Dubnyk looks like Sean Burke's newest star pupil. 

I'm not saying Dubnyk will unseat Smith by seasons end or anything, the Coyotes probably have too much invested in Smith to allow it to happen anyway, but I do think this has a chance to be "exhibit A" in the case against signing goaltenders to long-term deals. 

Katie Flynn: If the Colorado Avalanche don't have a healthy season from here on out in the goaltending department, they could find themselves at the bottom of the standings in a hurry. They've already seen Semyon Varlamov go down, as well as backup Reto Berra. 

With both goaltenders healthy again they didn't consider signing another goaltender because they have 49 contracts - one less than the limit. If they find themselves short again, they may have to take a chance they weren't willing to take in October. 

Is there a team that you think is terribly misplaced in the standings right now? As in, doing well so far with a bad team, or fairing poorly with a good one? 

JB: I don’t think the Oilers are all that bad, despite their start, but I’ll take the easy answer and say the Predators. Pekka Rinne is a huge difference maker, Seth Jones is a year older, Shea Weber is a stud, and they brought in some offensive talent. But let’s get real here. A team with a second line of Colin Wilson, Derek Roy and Craig Smith is not that great. A team leaning on Mike Ribiero and Olli Jokinen is not that great. They can play D, sure, but I still expect them to finish the season … not that great.

TD: The Nashville Predators are not the best team in the Central and I don't even think they're a playoff team, but that's where they sit so far. 

The Predators are undefeated in regulation, but they've built that success on the back of fortunate bounces on offense, and unreal goaltending from both Pekka Rinne and Carter Hutton. I have all the time in the world for a Pekka Rinne rebound season, but when ever Carter Hutton has given you .946 goaltending in a game you stole a point in - you're probably getting the bounces.

Anyway they're not going to be hanging with the Blackhawks, Blues, Stars, and Wild all season long. 

KF: The Dallas Stars showed their potential on opening night against the Chicago Blackhawks. They kept up, and, dictated pace with one of the best teams in the league. 

The 3-1-2 Stars have a bit of work to do when they have the lead, and haven't been on luck's good side in extra time. The pace they played at in the first game was unbelievable and is an indicator that they can do so much more with their speed. 

The addition of Jason Spezza is proving beneficial to their top six, and they're keeping up with the Blackhawks in the standings. The Stars are going to be a fun and successful team to watch this season.

NHL teams seem less inclined to stack all their talent on one line these days (Kane and Toews, Crosby and Malkin), which provides some opportunities for  players like Patric Hornqvist, Tyler Bozak, and Andrew Shaw to have success.  Do you think we're seeing the end of the classic "first line?"

JB: Teams these days are more inclined to hunt for pairs, then slap on a complimentary player. That means if you have skill guys, you need someone who can retrieve the puck. If you have passers, you need a trigger. A three pack of skill is a party in shinny hockey, but these days you’re best to glue two guys together, and provide them with the skills they lack in a third body. That allows you to spread the skill around a bit more too, which makes your team harder to line match against.

TD: I don't think so. The salary cap necessitates some creativity, which is why guys like Alex Burrows or Chris Kunitz - grinders who can score enough, and improve the two-way abilities of the stars they play with - have succeeded in first-line spots over multiple seasons. 

But think about how Chicago goes to Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Sharp in the playoffs (Patrick Kane is the best finisher of the three, but he's not a better possession player than Sharp and Hossa), or how Los Angeles rode Dustin Brown, Marian Gaborik and Anze Kopitar last postseason. Even Pittsburgh put Evgeni Malkin with Sidney Crosby when the going got tough last spring. 

When teams start to get deeper into the playoffs, they need to be able to hang with - or ideally grind down - opponents using the top-end of their lineup. When the competition gets to that point you just need your top-end players to play your opponent's best to a draw, and provide easier circumstances for your supporting offensive players to put you over the top. That's sort of what 'That 70s line' did last postseason, and that's where Patrick Kane has shined for years. 

The best teams in the league are so good at the top, that you need to be able to hang, so the first line isn't quite dead.

KF: After the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010 they were forced to let go of large pieces (literally, like Dustin Byfuglien) just to get under the salary cap. 

Today's cap (and the climbing value for elite players) prevents teams from having more than a handful of elite level players on their team, and in turn, they've had to be creative with their lines. Splitting up Crosby and Malkin leads to two productive lines instead of having one lethal line. While Tyler Bozak continues to ride the coat tails of Phil Kessel, the Maple Leafs continue to shuffle their second line to spread around the talent. 

The classic first line isn't dead, but it's getting harder for each team to roll with one. It may be less exciting, but it's how teams are getting around cap constraints.

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3-on-3: Season subplots, surprising teams, and the death of 1st lines
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