A balanced top-six

I’m starting to wonder if the arrangement used for most of last season, one that saw the Oilers’ top line loaded up with Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle, was the best use of the team’s personnel.

Splitting Up The Difference Makers

Sticking the team’s best players together on one line isn’t something that every coach in the NHL does. For example, last year’s finalists in the West both tried something else:

Patrick Kane played 743:40 for the Blackhawks at even-strength; just 99:41 of that was spent on the same line as Jonathan Toews. Splitting up Toews and Kane let the Blackhawks run two extremely potent lines, one centered on Toews and Marian Hossa and the other on Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp.

Pavel Datsyuk played 667:39 for the Red Wings at even-strength; 195:07 of it with Henrik Zetterberg. It’s a slightly different situation because Zetterberg plays both centre and wing, but the idea is the same: rather than running one super-powered line the Red Wings ran 1 and 1A lines.

If the Oilers go with a conventional one/two line arrangement, than one line will feature Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins and the other will have Gagner, David Perron and Nail Yakupov. It’s not a bad setup, but for opposing teams with one really good defence pairing it doesn’t take much thinking to decide where to put them.


Assuming that the top-six group is set with the players named above, if the Oilers want to split up the three difference makers how might they do it? There are four options:

If the object of the game is to create two lines of roughly equal ability, the first alternative strikes me as the best bet. Taylor Hall is the best forward on the team by a considerable measure; the only way to force opposition coaches to think hard about the matchup is to load up the other line as much as possible. It’s much the same thing the Oilers did with Doug Weight in 2000-01 when Mike Comrie made the team: if I remember correctly they gave Comrie Ryan Smyth and Anson Carter as wingers while Doug Weight packed around Dan Cleary and Sergei Zholtok.

Hall would have it a little better than Weight did. Sam Gagner’s a fine player, especially offensively, while Nail Yakupov is a truly remarkable talent in the early stages of his career. On the other line, the duo of Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins add David Perron, who while not Hall’s equal is a fine two-way player with goal-scoring ability.

It’s certainly a more balanced setup on a team that would lean heavily on both lines. Is it better than the conventional lineup?

Recently around the Nation Network

The player who might have been this summer’s most controversial free agent seems to have finally found a new home. According to multiple reports, Mikhail Grabovski has agreed to a new contract with the Washington Capitals. From Leafs Nation:

I would suspect… that Grabovski took a while to sign because he was looking for the right situation, and he wouldn’t be happy playing in a third line role again. Grabovski will probably have a chance to prove himself offensively, a tall task for a 30-year-old that is probably through with his scoring prime.

Click the link above to read more, or check out some of my recent stuff:

  • 916oiler

    Totally agree with your assesment and the line Hall is on becomes the first line .Also with RNH coming back from surgery becomes all the more reason to put more pressure on Gags . Last leave Ebs with RNH so adding Perron makes sense .

  • **

    In the end, to beat Boston and LA, Chicago had to put Toews and Kane back together. This is not unusual. In the playoffs, typically, your best players have to beat the other teams best players. Tactics don’t much matter.

    The regular season is more tactical. The playoffs not so much.

    If Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Eberle can outplay and outscore whoever the opposition puts outs against them, there is no reason to separate them.

    If they can’t, well then you separate them.

    • **

      You must have missed the playoff series between Toronto and Boston. That series was won purely on strategy. Oh how I loved those ice time comparison graphics from TSN ( I think it was TSN)

  • Supernova

    Maybe its possible that Dallas Eakins looks for pairs of forwards and then blends the rest.

    Maybe something like

    RNH and Ebs, Gagner and Perron,

    then Hall and Yak, and Hemsky slide around every few games.

    I know that they don’t play the same wing but the demands on wingers aren’t as high and versatility is a good thing.

  • G Money

    I like that Eakins has said he’ll adjust the teams tactics (of which personnel and line combos are an obvious one) depending on who they’re playing.

    So it wouldn’t surprise me if we see all four of the options above, and maybe others during the season (cue the “DalBlender” complaints).

    Personally, all I hope that we achieve this year is that both our top two lines last year generate more than they give up. That would be a nice change from last year when only the top line was in plus territory, while 2 and 3 were in the red and 4 was at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

    I still fear that we’ll see more of the same on 3 and 4 this year.

  • Czar

    “Is it better than the conventional lineup?”

    I don’t think any of the options are better than the conventional lineup. We have a true #1 line that has come into their own and I don’t see the benefit of splitting them up.The addition of Perron, a fine two way player,will solidify the second line defensively. Increased minutes and better linemates for Yak should result in more wicked celebrations.

    • Admiral Ackbar

      Though the Oil have true top line forwards, I’d venture to say we don’t yet have a 1st line centre in Nuge, that I can still see then easily shut down by a Weber, Keith, Seabrook, Hamhuis, Doughty. Breaking up the top end talent (Hall & Ebs in my opinion) would make the Oil more competitive against teams with elite Dmen that don’t have a tonne of depth.

      I’d say juggle the lines to heart’s content. Nuge-Ebs-Hall will always get top PP time together. They’ll be better off being comfortable with multiple linemates.

      Multiple partners is the key to success, right?

      • Czar

        I think a surgically repaired Nuge will prove that he’s a #1 center. In fact,I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a selke nominee in 3 years, the kid is wicked good at both ends of the ice.

        I want to see some consistency with the lines so they develope some chemistry. That’s not to say you don’t double shift the hot hand on any given night or change things up on occasion when things aren’t going well.

        Multiple partners is the key to success if your a man whore,right?

        • Admiral Ackbar

          Multiple partners would’ve worked if we were serious about keeping Gretzky here. Somehow I think Janet wouldn’t have stuck around if that had been the case.

          As for Nuge, I agree that the sky is the limit with Selke nominations and I’d venture to say that he could be an assist leader as well. Currently, however, I’d say that according to pre-surgery viewing, he’s been a 2C playing 1C minutes.

          While Horcs was injured last year and Nuge was playing against top competition, he looked particularly ineffective. It all goes without saying that this is reasonable to expect out of a 20 year old. I’d just say that he’s not a 1C until he’s a 1C, it’s just honestly a question of when he gets there. I hope it’s this year, and if MacT is ballsy, he’ll extend the contract another 7-8 years at $6mil BEFORE this happens.

          Too bold? That’s pretty bold…

          • Czar

            If the rumors are true Mess was the multiple partners guy but that didn’t keep him around long enough either. Maybe a more open minded Janet could have kept the whole gang together.

            I’m hoping the shoulder was the reason for the lack of production and we see the Nuge of 2011-12.I think he still made strides in other areas of his game now if he could just win a faceoff. I have to agree with you that it would be nice to get him signed for 6-7 years at a good rate while we can.

            Not too bold as far as I’m concerned. Cheers!

          • Old Retired Guy (A.K.A. Die-Nasty)

            It would be interesting to see some kind of analysis on whether or not longer term contracts actually deliver the value they are perceived to deliver……there seem to be way too many contracts that go south before their expiration for a host of reasons…..Injury…..player under performs relative to the $, …player over performs and demands more money or to be traded….player sulks……player has his cash in hand and so gets complacent….player bolts to the KHL….players CONTRACT becomes untradable…ETC…..what’s wrong with signing a four or five year contract and the paying up if the player over achieves?

  • Marshall Law

    The thing that strikes me is that all he alternatives are solid. This is a fun debate because we aren’t trying to slot JFJ or Pouliot or Hoc into the top 6

    It’s refreshing.

  • Marshall Law

    I also like the idea of having the team’s best playmaker playing between 2 goal scoring wingers who play on their off wings. Could be a tasty combination. I’ll go for alternative #2.

  • Craig1981

    I have been think this for a long time. I like Gagner with hall and Eberle. He has shown he is good enough to play with Eberle and Hall. RNH makes everyone better around him. Eberle and hall don’t need that as much as Yakapov and Perron (no slight on them) that give you 2 lines that can play 20+ min making our weaker bottom lines less of an issue

  • The Last Big Bear

    The talent is our top 6 is great, I want results and tons of goals this season!

    I hear Grabo signed with Washington. That’s weird, my source said he was going to sign with the Flamers.

    Oh wait, my source was DSF.

    Wrong again.

  • oldhippy

    Option 2. I like the idea of keeping Hall and Eberle together. But I really like the idea of an all Canadian powerhouse line in the conventional option. I think they would be a handful playing fourth line minutes for team Canada. They have chemistry and have played together a lot the last two years. In a year where team Canada has to build chemistry in a hurry, you have a ready made, speedy, talented line. Personally I think Hall should make team Canada on his own merit, but this line is more than the sum of its parts.

  • The Soup Fascist

    Mark me down for option #1.

    I would love to watch Hall and Yakupov on the ice together. RNH in the middle would leave little doubt who the oppositions top pairing D would key on. Gagner would be fine there and free up Nuge and Eberle for some easier minutes. However, that makes for a pretty small line where you would be depending on Perron to be the “muscle”.

    As skilled as all these guys are, you can sure see how a big talented forward with a little grit would significantly change the dynamic and cause more matchup problems for the opposition.

    Le “sigh”.

  • Admiral Ackbar

    I agree that option #1 is best, giving both lines fine balance. The news about Grabo disappoints me in that I had a dream of creating 3 solid scoring lines with Grabo & Hemmer in the mix as well.

    Anyhow, that’s a dream for a fan of a playoff team. I’m humble, no worries MacT.

    • I Agree, we didn’t get to see this historically unprecedented line even once last year. This is potentially even more of a loaded first line then what they currently have setup now.

      No other time in hockey could you have three consecutive first overall picks, on a line, on one team, all playing their natural positions. Why can’t they just put this line out once?

      As for the actual balancing I have a few thoughts. First, with the current stats on the pipeline Hall, Nuge, Eberle, the outshot and outscored their opposition, and playing against bigger teams wasn’t a factor. Thus, they can be considered one of the best top lines in the NHL, poised to only get better, and better and better. So a team with a big top defence pairing is obviously going to stack up against these guys. Say that defence is successful in shutting down our top line. That means our second line of Gagner, Yak, and Perron don’t have to face the toughest opposition. Our second line looks very skilled. Against a teams second toughest competition, assuming Gagner can improve in the face off dot or he’s given some defencemen to help get the puck back, this second line should be able to chew apart MOST teams second defence pairing, and forward competition. Not many teams have depth in their defence like that nor at forward. Kings, Sharks, Detroit, Pens and Van are some teams that come to mind that might make it tough for our second line. But that is assuming our first line isn’t getting it done.

      My other feeling is that Hall and Yak were just so good together last year. I know Ebs had a broken finger and Nuge a busted shoulder so maybe they turn it around, But Hall and Yak could be lethal together. It would also mean Gagner wouldn’t have to work so hard at his two way play. Thus, if Perron can find some chemistry with Nuge and Ebs on the top line facing the toughs, then this scenario might work out even better. The only problem is away games will match their top defence likely against whatever line Hall is on, and I’m not sure Gagner and Yak would be up tot hat challenge just yet.