It is something every coach dreams about, but few achieve. It can mean the difference between winning a hockey game, a playoff series or even the Stanley Cup. It's the perfect line, and it usually consists of players with contrasting, yet complementary, talents. Chemistry and diversity are often more important than pure skill.
"You can't just put three skilled guys together and always expect it to work out," explains San Jose Sharks hockey analyst Drew Remenda. "Often the real good lines have a combination of factors – toughness, power, speed, vision, skill – and it's the combination that works."
Set lines were the standard 25 years ago, but they're a rarity in the modern game. The advent of video, the revolving door for coaches and the immediacy of winning have all led to frequent line juggling. A coach in the 1970s might have broken up his first line after five or six unproductive games, but today that same decision might be reached after five or six shifts.
"The game is so results oriented today," explains Nashville Predators Assistant General Manager Ray Shero, the son of Philadelphia Flyers coaching legend Fred Shero. "Coaches are always concerned about players growing stale together, and if they're in a bit of a slump it may be more mental than anything else. So, switching the lines may get the players thinking a little more and trying to do different things on the ice."
"In the mid-1970s, my father had three set lines (in Philadelphia)," Shero said. "He went with Reggie Leach-Bobby Clarke and Bill Barber; Ross Lonsberry-Rick MacLeish and Gary Dornhoefer; and Dave Schultz-Orest Kindrachuk and Don Saleski. My father's idea of switching things around to get the players more mentally into the game was putting the right winger on left wing and the left winger on right wing, or moving a defenseman up at forward. Nowadays, you're switching lines around all the time trying to find that right combination. With the access to video and satellite dishes, teams can really counter. (They can) get their desired defensive pairings or matches up front against your line, so you break up a line to try to counter that as well. You're always looking for that edge to win."
The Vancouver Canucks have shown an edge to win in recent times and they have the depth chart to back up their ambition.
Vancouver is among the NHL's top teams in the excitement quotient and no combination is more deadly on a consistent basis than the line of Markus Naslund, Brendan Morrison and Todd Bertuzzi. The trio represent the premier line in hockey and gives proof to the concept that great lines come in all shapes and sizes.
Markus is entering the prime of his career and attributes much of his success to his linemates.
"This line has been together for a few years and they really click," explains Vancouver assistant coach Jack McIlhargey. "They know each other very well, they blend together and they compliment each other. Todd Bertuzzi (6-foot-3, 235 pounds) is a real power forward, but he is a power forward with great skill. Todd has great hands in close and for a big man he's got great ability around the net. Brendan Morrison (5-11, 190 pounds) has great speed and is a playmaker. Markus Naslund (5-11, 195 pounds) loves to score. He is a natural goal scorer with a great shot and great release. He just loves to score."
Scoring is something Naslund has done over 40 times in each of the last three seasons and he is on target for a banner year in 2003-04. The 30-year old winger is entering the prime of his career and attributes much of his success to his linemates.
"It's been a treat," says the Canucks' captain. "Brendan is a very underrated centerman. He has great speed. I think that Todd is the premier power forward in the League. He opens up a lot (of ice) for his linemates. It's a great combination for myself."
Like all great combinations, the Canucks' dynamic trio have the critical common denominator – speed.
"Speed makes things happen," says former NHL player and coach Terry Crisp, now the color commentator on Nashville Predators telecasts. "When you consider great lines, at least one of the players has speed. They need good speed to open it up to make it happen."
"Nobody knows what creates that chemistry, but you know when it's there." -- Jerry Toppazzini
Great scoring trios are more than simply an assemblage of talented players. Sending out the most feared shooters and adept playmaker does not guarantee success. Every team has experienced frustration when they've combined three forwards with complimentary skills on paper, but were unable to make a smooth transition on the ice. The formula for developing a dynamic line is not a simple one. Some believe that it has yet to be discovered.
"There’s no sense sitting down and trying to analyze it," says Crisp. "You can't analyze it and you can't videotape it. Why? Because it’s a God-given talent right off the bat. Certain guys are given the talent and they can utilize it together."
So what factors enable three players like Naslund, Morrison and Bertuzzi to mesh their skills and dominate from the opening faceoff?
"If I could answer that question I'd go out scouting players and starting putting them together," says Jerry Toppazzini, a hard-driving winger with the Boston Bruins in the 1950s. "I don't understand why I played better with Fleming Mackell and Don McKenny than I did with other players on my team. I don't know what made Jean Beliveau, Bernie Geoffrion and Bert Olmstead click. I have no idea. Nobody knows what creates that chemistry, but you know when it's there."
And in Vancouver, it's there.