Re-Examining How We Define Forward Rankings

Do people really know what a “top-six forward” is? Or a first line centre? Let’s take a look at forwards league wide and create some definitions

When someone says the term "first line centre" or "bottom-six winger," do we actually know what that means? We all have our idea of what defines a first, second, third, and fourth line player, but I think most people don’t actually know what sort of production corresponds to what definition.

A month before the season seems like a perfect time to give a refresher to everybody, so when the season rolls around we can know what we’re talking about.

I took a look at point production around the NHL from the past five seasons in order to get a larger recent sample. Since we typically value forwards by how many points they score, I only looked at that because it’s impossible to include defensive value and other things of that nature. If a winger scored 30 points but was elite defensively, we aren’t going to define him as a first line winger, so looking at points makes things nice and easy.

First of all, let’s examine what is a "first line centre." In theory, there should be 30 first line centres in the NHL because each team has a top line. In reality, many teams have a few, and some have zero. Still though, I like calling the 30th best centre a first line centre. There are certainly different tiers within those 30, but they can still be grouped together. Over the past five seasons, the average production from the 30th best centre has been 53 points.

Which centres hit that threshold last season? Guys like Alex Galchenyuk, Derick Brassard, Ryan O’Reilly, Mikko Koivu, and a few others that I would not expect to see. It was interesting to see that Brassard was 26th, although this was a career year for him so I wouldn’t expect that exact production moving forward.

A lot of people think of a first line centre as that 75-80 point guy, but the truth is that there was only four centres that hit 75 last season. Sure, there is a difference between an elite centre and a first line centre, but the fact is that getting somewhere around 52-55 points is fantastic.

How about a second line centre then? Over the past five years, the 60th best centre has averaged 38 points over 82 games. Obviously that’s the low end of the spectrum for a 2C, but anywhere between 38-52 points is second line material (as a centre at least). Some interesting names that were in the top 60 this year were Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Rickard Rakell, Mikael Backlund, and Ryan Spooner.

Instead of going position by position for each line, let’s make it easier on the eyes. Here are the thresholds for each forward position:

First Line 44 53 46
Second Line 26 38 27

Remember, these are the lowest possible values for one to be considered first and second line. The average value would be a bit higher for each. If you had a 53 point first line centre, he wouldn't exactly be a solid first liner, but he would fit the definition. It's interesting and predictable that the centres have much higher values for each line, just because they're typically involved in more plays around the ice. The bar for wingers is...quite low, considering 26 points on left wing would be 2nd line caliber, but much lower as a centre.

So how do Ottawa players look by these standards then? Take a look at how they rank in every players last full/healthy season:

Kyle Turris: 1st line C (64 in 2014/15)

Derick Brassard: 1st line C (58)

Mike Hoffman: 1st line LW (59)

Mark Stone: 1st line RW (61)

Bobby Ryan: 1st line RW (56)

Clarke MacArthur: 2nd line LW (36)

Jean-Gabriel Pageau: 2nd line C (42)

Zack Smith: 2nd line LW (36)

It's amazing that the Senators have five forwards listed under "first line," even though we know that some of them are on the fringe. I certainly would not rank Ottawa's forwards by these strict definitions, but it is noteworthy that the Senators obviously have some very good forwards.

Sadly there is no easy way to do this exercise with defensemen, because the fact is that we can’t judge defensemen mainly on points like we do with forwards, so it would not work. Even for forwards, it is not an exact science either. Certainly defensive value for a a centre or winger has to be taken into consideration, but when people discuss what line a forward fits on, they are usually referencing point totals.

I understand that for many people, 38 points is not a 2nd line centre, and neither is 26 for a 2nd line left winger. The book definition says that it is, but it does seem low even to myself. However, I think we tend to underrate how hard it is to score a lot of points in the NHL, and there are plenty of 40-50 point players that are under-appreciated.

This sort of exercise really only works well with top-six players, because once you get past the top 100-150 players, everyone is pretty much the same. Saying that a left-winger has 12 points and is therefore a third liner isn't exactly the point of this, it is more to do with defining upper-echelon players. And a lot of the time, we have trouble defining what a first line player actually is.

Calling the 25th best centre in the league non-elite is a valid opinion, but he is still a first line centre, and we can share those same opinions at the same time. Debates about x player being an x line player will never end, even if hockey fans see the results like I have shown today. It gets a lot murkier at the bottom because the bar is so low, so I would advise against taking too much stock into bottom six guys grading out better than one would expect.

However, hopefully in the future we can be more realistic when we talk about what it really means to be a first line player, because the days of there being 20 100-point scorers is over. We don't need to follow this outline by the book, but it's something to at least be mindful of when we discuss how good a certain forward is. Now please just don’t get me started on debates about what is or is not "elite."

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