Do The Bolts Have the League's Best Top Six?

A week ago I thought that challenging the accuracy of a statement made by a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning front office would make for an interesting blog post. Now I'm thinking that the increasing opportunity for such challenges would make for an interesting blog. Or an interesting 24-hour cable news channel.

One week after Bolts' veep of hockey ops Brian Lawton put Andrej Meszaros among the game's elite blueliners (on a sidenote, you've gotta at least appreciate a number two who's actually willing to talk to the press), Lightning owner Oren Koules announced to the world that his team has the best top two lines in hockey:

"We take a lot of pride in knowing our top six forwards, who we believe are the best top six forwards in the league, all have three years or more on their contracts."

Assuming that the players to whom Koules is referring are Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Steve Stamkos, Vaclav Prospal, Ryan Malone and Radim Vrbata, is Koules accurate in his assessment, or is he just blowing smoke? Does he even have the top six forwards in the Southeast Division? Let's look at it position-by-position.

Left Wing: Tampa's got Prospal and Malone, a pair that combined for 60 goals and 62 assists in 2007-08. Interestingly, the 33-year-old Prospal's point totals over the last six seasons have been 55, 79, 54, 80, 55, 71, a pattern that would seem to predict a drop-off ahead. Malone is coming off a career year and may just be hitting his stride... or not -- his 27 goals were the most he has scored in a season at any level.

In Washington, Alexanders Ovechkin and Semin may very well be the best left wing teammates in the League, combining for 175 goals and 319 points over the last two seasons.

Carolina's Ray Whitney had 25 goals and 36 assists last season and Sergei Samsonov had 32 points in 38 games for the 'Canes after coming over from Chicago and giving his career a kickstart.

Advantage: Washington, and it's not even close.

Center: Lecavalier (40 goals, 52 assists last season) is unquestionably one of the League's best centers, and Stamkos was the no-brainer number one overall pick in last year's draft, but what should we expect going forward from this duo? Lecavalier is probably closer to the 40-goal scorer he was last year than the 52-goal man he was in 2006-07 (over his career he has averaged 32.5 goals per season), and Puck Daddy called for 50-plus points for Stamkos. I've projected him at 25-goals, 33-assists.

Up the coast in Carolina, Eric Staal and Rod Brind'Amour provide a powerful one-two punch up the middle, as Staal is one of just a dozen players with a 100-point season since the lockout and Brind'Amour has 133 points in his last 137 NHL games.

Continuing up I-95 to D.C., Nicklas Backstrom's phenomenal rookie season saw him tally 13 goals and 47 assists in his final 61 regular season games, and fellow Swede Michael Nylander has had the three best seasons of his career in terms of points-per-game since the lockout, totalling 199 points in 200 games (including a month-plus stretch last season during which he basically played with one healthy shoulder).

Advantage: Tampa, but it's close and it all depends on whether or not Stamkos is the real deal. If he struggles, the Bolts drop to third here real fast. It's also worth noting that the Lightning duo will likely have the worst plus/minus of the three tandems.

Right Wing: Last season, the 33-year-old St. Louis scored fewer goals, 25, than he had in any season since 2001-02 (though his assist total of 58 was good for seventh in the League). Free agent acquisition Vrbata (27 goals, 29 assists) is coming off career-highs in nearly every offensive category, besting his single-season high in goals by 50% and points by 36%.

Elsewhere down the right side in the Southeast, Washington features Viktor Kozlov and Chris Clark, each of whom has shone on opposite Ovechkin over the past two seasons -- Kozlov had 54 points and a plus-28 rating last season, and Clark had 30 goals in that spot in his last full season, back in 2006-07. Obviously one of them (or perhaps Brooks Laich (21 goals last season) or former two-time WHL 50-goal scorer Eric Fehr) will skate on the second line.

Down in Raleigh, Justin Williams has topped 30 goals in each of his full seasons since the lockout, and either Patrick Eaves or Tuomo Ruutu will try to fill the hole on the second line left by the departure of fan fave and perennial 50-60 point producer Erik Cole.

Advantage: Tampa. The Bolts have the division's best right wing and Vrbata's a solid second-liner.

The Verdict: If we look at the last full season played by each of Washington's top-six forwards (2007-08 for Ovechkin, Backstrom and Kozlov, 2006-07 for Nylander, Semin and Clark), the group totalled 189 goals and 256 assists. Doing the same for Carolina's top six (2007-08 for Staal and pro-rating what Samsonov did for the 'Canes, 2006-07 for Whitney, Brind'Amour, Williams and Eaves), the total is 173 goals and 241 assists.

Tampa's 2008-09 veteran top-six forwards -- each of whom played at least 76 games in 2007-08 -- produced 152 goals and 171 assists in the NHL last season (though not all of those stats came for the Bolts, obviously). Throw in the above projection for Stamkos to level things out, and you're at 177 goals and 204 assists.

For each of these teams, you've got a superstar surrounded by good talent at various stages of their respective careers. Some of the players above are entering their prime years, while others are bidding adieu to their best seasons (Tampa's top six forwards average 28.29 years of age, Washington's average 28.38 and Carolina's 29.90). Some will improve on their 2007-08 seasons, others will regress. If I had to pick a top six for 2008-09, I'd take the Caps, but in terms of offensive production it's close (Tampa is second and Carolina is third until they find or establish a legitimate second line RW). Beyond 2008-09? Well, we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.

The bigger picture bottom line, however, is that without even leaving the Southeast Division to look at teams that feature Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin or Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Marian Hossa or Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, it's pretty clear that Oren Koules' claim that Tampa has "the best top six forwards in the league" is dubious, at best. Which leaves a fairly interesting and obvious question on the table: which team has the best top-six forwards in the League today? Can anyone compete with Detroit for that title?

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