Life in the NHL on the ‘Big Line,’ featuring Eric Staal

Matt Larkin
staal line

Is the era of the ‘Big Line’ over? Not quite, but it isn’t what it was.

Gone are the days of ‘The French Connection’ and ‘Legion of Doom.’ Dominant units exist, such as Pittsburgh’s trio of Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. But rarely will a coach trot the same group out night after night and more specifically year after year. Sedin-Sedin-Burrows has given way to Sedin-Sedin-Hansen, Sedin-Sedin-Kassian, Sedin-Sedin-Santorelli and so on. There is so much video footage and there are so many advanced stats that coaches can’t help but fiddle with their chemistry experiments and change up their lines.

It’s fair to wonder, then, if  Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty’s days are numbered as a tight trio in Carolina. Last season, they were one of the league’s most effective units. Staal tallied 53 points in 48 games, Semin 44 in 44 and Tlusty 38 in 48, 23 of which were goals, tying him for fifth in the NHL with some dudes named Toews and Kane. In 2013-14: simply not cutting it so far. With five points in eight games, Staal was the best of the lot. Semin: two goals, no assists in eight games. Tlusty: zero points in eight games. They were a combined minus-11 already versus plus-34 last year. Notice the old jerseys in the image above? I couldn’t find one of the guys celebrating a goal from this season.

When a typically stellar line struggles, does each player take it upon himself to improve individually or must the trio work collectively to break their slump? “It’s a little bit of both,” Staal said Thursday night in Toronto after Carolina’s comeback win over the Leafs. “But we’re coming around here the last little bit. Our game is getting a little bit better. Jiri missed some of training camp and Alex missed some of the pre-season at the end, so we didn’t get a lot of time together. Our pace has been higher in practice, which is important.

Let’s say what we’re all wondering: was Tlusty a fluke? It’s fair to assume Staal and Semin will heat up. Staal has seven seasons of 70 points or better, eight if you pro-rate last year, and Semin, while inconsistent, has been a point-per-game player three times. Tlusty? Well, his 38 points were a career high. Things look grim so far. But do his linemates take it upon themselves to pull him from the abyss? Staal said he does, no question.

“Last year it took a little while for Jiri to score his first one, too,” Staal said. “But if you get them in bunches, like anybody, once you get that confidence going, it goes a long way. So he’ll get there and we’re going to need him.”

Turns out Eric Staal knows his stats. I checked – and Tlusty took nine games to score his first in 2012-13. So if the trend continues and Tlusty explodes, maybe, just maybe one of the NHL’s rare ‘Big Lines’ will live to fight another season.