Panthers’ second line bringing combination of speed, skill, smarts

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

It’s already widely known that the Panthers have an incredibly talented top line which consists of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and a future Hall-of-Famer in Jaromir Jagr. But they have a pretty good second line too, and it’s one that deserves to be talked about a lot more than it is now.

Coming into the season, it was expected that Nick Bjugstad, the reigning team-leader in goals (24), would anchor the Panthers’ 2nd line with newly-acquired right-winger Reilly Smith and Brandon Pirri who was looking to continue his offensive ways after a career-high 22 goal season. However, following an early season injury to top-line center Aleksander Barkov and Dave Bolland soon after, Vincent Trocheck returned to his natural position at center and began to emerge as a solid top-6 forward.

“He’s a great player, very skilled…he’s like a little waterbug out there,” said Bjugstad of Trocheck in early November.

When Barkov returned to the lineup in mid-November, it would be just a couple of weeks before Bjugstad would miss the first of 14 December games, further solidifying Trocheck’s spot on the second line. It took some time, but eventually a trio, which featured Trocheck, veteran Jussi Jokinen on the left wing, and Smith on the right wing, was formed. The three previously made up part of the Panthers’ second power play unit which combined for 7 power play goals during the first 2 months of the season.

When Bjugstad returned at the beginning of January, he was put on the 3rd line in an effort to keep the 2nd line intact, and for good reason, too. There are a bunch of stats that highlight just how good Trocheck, Smith and Jokinen have been when they’re together, and it starts with their possession numbers.

When we look at the stats of Trocheck and Jokinen (and together, they show the stats for Smith), a few things stand out. To put it simply, Trocheck, Smith, and Jokinen are really good when on the ice together. When Trocheck is with Smith at 5-on-5, 52.8% of all shot attempts are directed toward the opposing goaltender, which also means more time is being spent in the offensive zone than the defensive zone (also a good thing).

We also see that when Smith and Trocheck are not on the ice together, there is a noticeable drop off in the Corsi For% of both players as shown by “Without Reilly Smith” and “Smith When Apart.” The fact that Trocheck’s CF% is lower when apart from Smith instead of the other way around suggests that Smith has a slighty larger impact on possession than Trocheck does. Taking a look at Jokinen, it’s clear that he has a huge impact on his linemates and more-so than Smith has on Trocheck. This is also proven by the fact that Jokinen has the best CF% RelTM on the team at 7.2, meaning a lot more shots are directed towards the opposition when he’s on the ice compared to when he’s not.

The main takeaway from the stats above is that there are more shot attempts for the Panthers when the three players are together than when they’re apart, and as we all know, you can’t score unless you shoot the puck. It also helps that the line spends most of its time with Brian Campbell. For example, Jokinen has a CF% of 60 with Campbell, but that drops all the way down to 46.9 when Jokinen is without Campbell, which is pretty incredible.

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

We also see the same trend when it comes to actually scoring goals. When Trocheck and Smith are on the ice with Jokinen, they score goals at a rate of 3.23 per 60 minutes of ice time, which is very good for this stat. When they’re apart, the GF/60 rate of the line drops significantly to an average of 1.65 goals at 5-on-5. You can go across the line and see that pretty much every stat – shots for, goals against, scoring chances for – is noticeably higher when Trocheck, Jokinen, and Smith are together compared to when they’re apart.

While Trocheck, Jokinen, and Smith have each been in and around the Panthers’ top-5 in scoring since the beginning of the season, their scoring paces have skyrocketed over the past several weeks as the chemistry between the three has continued to improve.

“When we got put together this year, we love playing together, we have great chemistry,” said Trocheck of his linemate Jussi Jokinen. “[Smith]  can play with anybody, he’s talented, skilled, and works hard…he can do it all. We mesh really well.”

Jokinen has points in 8 of his last 10 games including a 6-game point streak during which he has 2 goals and 7 assists. It’s his best stretch as a Panther by far, and he’s been incredibly impressive over the past several weeks. Jokinen has already passed his goal total from last season (8) in 29 fewer games and he’s on pace for 39 assists which would beat his career-high by 1.

“I didn’t know how good a hockey player he was,” said head coach Gerard Gallant of Jokinen after the Panthers’ 5-2 win over the Leafs just before the All-Star Break. “He’s so talented both ways…top penalty killer, top power play guy. He’s really big for us.”

Reilly Smith has points in 8 of his last 12 games including a 6-game point streak (ended on 2/6) which included goals in 4 straight games and 4 assists. It’s also been his best stretch of the season by far, and as we stated in a recent article about him, he’s become one of Dale Tallon’s best acquisitions since taking over as General Manager in 2010. Smith is 4 goals away from his career-high of 20 and he’s on pace to surpass that by the end of the season.

“When you’re riding a little bit of a hot wave like I’m doing right now, you just try to keep it going, keep doing the little stuff right,” said Reilly Smith when the Panthers returned from the All-Star Break. When asked what’s been going right for him as of late, Smith simply said “the puck’s been going in the back of the net.”

For Trocheck, he has undoubtedly benefited from not only being moved back to his natural center position, but also the increased ice time on the 2nd line. While Trocheck is a very good player on his own, there’s no question that he has also benefited from playing with smart, skilled players in Jokinen and Smith. Trocheck currently leads the Panthers with a career-high 17 goals in 52 games, which is much improved over last season when he had just 7 goals in 2 less games, and has 5 goals and 4 assists in his last 5 games. He has also reached career-highs in assists (16) and points (33). Trocheck is shooting the puck more and becoming more comfortable overall, so it’s no wonder he has really emerged this year.

When asked if the net was looking “big” to him as of late due to the amount of goals he has scored, Trocheck said, “I guess you could say that.”

The eye test essentially confirms everything the advanced stats above have shown us. Not only have Trocheck, Jokinen, and Smith been on fire as of late, but they were solid even during the early parts of the season when they made up the Panthers’ 2nd power play unit. Trocheck and Smith’s speed give them the ability to carry the puck up ice and into the offensive zone, and when combined with their wrist shots, they have the ability to score off the rush. Jokinen can pretty much do it all; he’s been more of a playmaker with the Panthers, but he certainly has the ability to score when given the chance.

Here are some clips that prove their worth:

We already used this clip in our Reilly Smith article from a couple of weeks ago, but it’s too good to not include when talking about the second line as a whole. In this clip, we se several things, and the first is how smart Jokinen is. He deliberately slows down once he crosses the blue line and that allows for a few things to happen. All 3 of the Chicago players in the frame have their eyes locked on the puck as it sits on Jokinen’s stick, and because he stops skating, so do the Chicago players. This causes them to become flat-footed once Reilly Smith speeds into the zone. Jokinen also waits until the last second to pass Smith the puck which ensures that the Chicago defender isn’t able to stop Smith from reaching the net.

The second line has been very, very good at carrying the puck into the offensive zone, and that’s not the only example of it. Here’s another:

trocheckentry

This one is mostly Trocheck, but it shows off his ability to easily enter the zone. The Avalanche weren’t badly positioned until Trocheck crossed the red-line, because just before that, Jokinen began skating the opposite way which gave Trocheck a drop-pass option if he wanted to do so. The Avalanche forward (#7) picked up on that and went after Jokinen slightly which opened up the zone to Trocheck and allowed him to speed in, causing the defensemen to become flat-footed. Trocheck did something similar on Thursday against the Capitals where he came down the wing along the boards and in doing so made himself appear as less of a threat…until he shot the puck and scored, that is.

trogoal2nyi

There’s also this play above from December 15th which resulted in Vincent Trocheck’s second goal in over a month. Not only that, but it was the first time that him, Jokinen, and Smith played together since November 14th after being broken up following weeks of line shuffling due to injuries to Nick Bjugstad and Jaromir Jagr.

When it comes to the play, the trio took advantage of some poor defensive positioning on the part of the Islanders. There was a lot of disarray when it came to who was covering who at the point and around the slot. This allowed Smith to hold onto the puck,  forcing an Islanders player to leave his man down low in an attempt to cover Smith. When he passed the puck down low to Jokinen, him, Trocheck, and Mitchell converged on the low slot and caused even more confusion for the Islanders. Trocheck went unnoticed for the entire clip until he was about to receive the puck, but it was too late.

He was being pressured from behind and in front, so that’s a pretty impressive goal for the young center. Oh yeah, and this would end up being the 1st win of 12 straight for the Panthers.

In this clip, we see Reilly Smith at work. He doesn’t get an assist on the goal, but he’s the main reason it happens at all. Before the clip even starts, the puck is dumped in to the zone and Smith climbs around Max McCormick who tries to prevent him from getting deep and reaching the puck. Smith proceeds to separate Claesson from the puck and force him to make a pass which lands right in the wheelhouse of Trocheck who one-times it past Anderson.

As Claesson gathered the puck in the corner, he looked to the left and saw Karlsson as a pass option, but likely also saw Jokinen who was gliding in to forecheck if the puck was sent to Karlsson. The decision to not pass the puck to Karlsson because of Jokinen charging in combined with Reilly Smith’s physical play allowed Trocheck to sneak into the high slot as the other Ottawa players were caught off guard.

In this final clip, we see a fairly simple play, and while it doesn’t result in a goal, it does produce a shot attempt which can be just as valuable. Right before the clip starts, Jussi Jokinen skates through the defensive zone and neutral zone on the right wing side and drops the puck off for Reilly Smith who’s waiting at the blue line. When Smith receives the puck, Jokinen skates right past two Edmonton defenders (who have their sight locked on Smith) and suddenly becomes wide open in the corner. Smith then smartly passes to Jokinen, at which point every Oilers player in the frame turns their attention to him. Smith takes advantage of that by charging into the slot where he takes a nice pass from Jokinen and gets a shot on goal.

That simple sequence set off 57 seconds of cycling around the zone and shots on net by the trio before they eventually went off for a line change near the end of the period. The shift was very reminiscent of ones we’re used to seeing by the Huberdeau-Barkov-Jagr line in that the Oilers were unable to take the puck away from anyone.


Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

While Trocheck, Jokinen, and Smith are similar players in one regard, they’re also different in another, and that allows them to compliment each other well. They’ve gelled very well over the past 2 months, and with the top line playing the way they are, they really complete the Panthers’ top-6. While you’d love to see Nick Bjugstad rekindle the success he had last year (because that would help the Panthers even more), it’s stil great to see Reilly Smith having an big impact on the team’s offense in his first season with the Panthers, and it’s even more exciting to see Vincent Trocheck show everyone what he’s capable of.

If the second line continues on their current path, the Panthers shouldn’t have to worry too much about offense especially when you take into account the emergence of Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov alongside Jaromir Jagr.

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