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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

McGuinness: Moving Max Ellis To The Slaggert Line Could Be The Boost ND’s Offense Needs

The history of hockey has been dominated by great lines. Detroit’s Production Line in the 1950s of Mr. Hockey Gordie Howe, Sid Abel and Ted Linsday. Philadelphia’s famous Legion of Doom in the 1990s of John LeClair, Eric Lindros and Mikael Renberg. More recently, Boston’s vaunted Perfection Line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak has torn apart the NHL for the last half-decade. A signature, once-in-a-generation line isn't required to be a good team, or even to win a championship. But it sure helps to have a trio to turn to in big moments that you are confident will get the job done.

Last year’s Notre Dame hockey team didn’t have quite as good a line as the ones mentioned above; no collegiate team ever will. But their top-line of Landon Slaggert, his brother Graham and Alex Steeves was one of Notre Dame's best in recent memory. They were Notre Dame’s three leading scorers with 22, 25 and 32 points, respectively (despite Landon missing four games and Graham missing two), accounting for over 35% of Notre Dame’s points. The trio was almost unstoppable and arguably the biggest reason why the Irish qualified for their fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance (not counting 2020, when no tournament was held).

Steeves’ departure last off-season after signing his entry-level contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs was always going to be a tough hole for the Irish to fill. Not only do the Irish miss Steeves himself, but they especially miss his presence with the Slaggert brothers. In 52 games combined, the pair recorded 47 points. Both are well-rounded players, but they excelled at getting the puck to Steeves in dangerous areas for him to finish off plays, as evidenced by his team-leading 15 goals — the same total Graham and Landon combined for last season — and 125 shots on goal, fourth-most in the entire nation and second in the Big Ten behind Montréal Canadiens wünderkind Cole Caufield.

This year, the Slaggerts haven’t been as productive, scoring 30 points in 48 combined contests. Part of that dip is just bad luck; after scoring on 17.4% of their shots last season, the brothers have lit the lamp on just 12.4% of their shots. But Steeves’ presence alongside the two is sorely missed. And while Notre Dame's team offensive numbers are slightly better than they were a year ago — the Irish average about an extra shot on goal per game and .64 more goals per game — they still rank third in goals per game in the Big Ten. The Irish are strong on defense (2.08 goals against per game, 1st in B10), have two goaltenders with a save percentage over .920% and good depth upfront; a go-to scoring-line is about the only thing the Irish lack.

The Slaggert brothers have spent most of their recent games alongside junior right-winger Trevor Janicke (whose brother, freshman right-winger Justin, started the season with the Slaggerts). Janicke has played pretty well on the Irish top-line; his eight goals are tied for third on the team, and his 67 shots on goal are tied for second. But he hasn’t been able to elevate the Slaggerts the way Steeves could and has also gone cold lately, scoring just four points in his last ten games. Landon and Graham have both been good this season; with a true goal-scorer like Steeves, they could return to if not exceed their excellent 2020-21 performances.

Fortunately, the Irish have a player who fits that bill and just happens to be a natural right-winger as well — junior Max Ellis. The Canton, Michigan native has been a revelation for the Irish all season, starting the year with five points in his first three games and never looking back. Ellis has already blown past his career highs in goals, points, and shots. In fact, not only do Ellis’ 101 shots on goal lead the Irish, they are first in the entire NCAA. His 14 goals are tied for seventh as well, and lead the team by a significant margin. Ryder Rolston is the closest with nine goals on the year.

That’s despite spending most of the year in a second or third-line role, receiving less ice-time than many of the nation’s other top snipers. Anyone who watched Notre Dame last year knows just how dangerous the Slaggerts are when playing at peak form. Anyone who has watched the Irish this year has seen Ellis emerge as an elite goal-scorer. Anyone who watched the Irish in both seasons probably can't help but get a little giddy at the thought of combining those two forms.

Of course, putting Ellis next to the Slaggerts isn’t guaranteed to succeed. The biggest knock on Ellis is that he’s the smallest player on the Irish at 5’9”, 165 pounds. Playing him twenty minutes a night or so and matching him against other team’s top defensive pairings could be quite the challenge physically, as teams would look overwhelm Ellis with physicality, potentially neutralizing the Slaggerts by doing so. And sometimes the best lines come from not just grouping a team’s three-best players; perhaps no line has more directly to a championship more recently than when the 2016 Penguins formed the HBK line by dropping 6-time 30-goal scorer Phil Kessel to their third line alongside Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino. Moving Ellis alongside the Slaggerts would undoubtedly weaken Notre Dame’s other three lines.

But for the Irish to enter the conversation as one of college hockey's true contenders, their offense needs to take a step forward. The obvious answer isn’t always the right one, but it’s usually worth exploring. Notre Dame could sure use a dominant offensive line. Max Ellis has been their best forward this season, and one of the top snipers in the entire country. Landon and Graham Slaggert made up two-thirds of the Irish’s best line a season ago. It’s time the Irish see what these three can do together.