It’s a lot of fun watching Craig MacTavish behind the Oilers’ bench. The man can flat-out coach and honestly this would probably be a better organization if he were in that role full-time and somebody else were pulling the strings from the general manager’s office.
But it’s also interesting to watch the general manager behind the bench, because every assignment he makes says something about how the Oilers’ top decision maker sees his team. What he did with his centres against San Jose on Thursday is fascinating.
Time on Ice & Matchups
One thing about the Sharks as currently constructed is they are ridiculously top-heavy. Exactly six forwards on the team have more than 10 points; all six of those guys were clustered on one of two lines against Edmonton (Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Tomas Hertl all played together; Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Tommy Wingels was the other unit). The third line is James Sheppard and a bunch of unknowns; the fourth line is John Scott and some lesser unknowns. The team has been hit with a string of injuries, and as a result there’s a chasm in performance difference between the top two lines and the bottom two lines.
Via Natural Stattrick, here’s how MacTavish deployed his troops:
- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins played 17:33 at even-strength against San Jose. For 10:49 of that he was on the ice against Couture; for a further 5:47 he was on against Thornton; assuming no overlap that means that a little less than one of his 17-odd minutes came against the Sharks’ depth guys. He also played 2:42 on the penalty kill.
- Boyd Gordon played 13:45 at evens, with 5:31 of that coming against Thornton and 3:26 against Couture. He also played a fair bit (5:13) against the James Sheppard-centered third line. As was true with Nugent-Hopkins, Gordon got a bunch of time on the penalty kill, playing 2:48.
- Mark Arcobello played 10:37 at evens. He saw the ice for less than a minute against Couture and just a hair over a minute against Thornton. He played nearly six minutes against rookie Chris Tierney (the Sharks’ fourth-line centre) and saw 2:39 against Sheppard.
- Leon Draisaitl played 9:42 at evens. He saw a bit of everyone, but played a surprising amount against Couture’s line (3:02), seeing him for two long shifts in the back half of the game which accounted for two-thirds of that time.
Nugent-Hopkins is tossed into the lion’s den, Gordon is asked to do a bit of everything, and both Arcobello and Draisaitl are given rookie treatment. At the start of the year, Dallas Eakins caused a stir when he talked about having two NHL centres; MacTavish didn’t say that in words on Thursday night but his actions said it emphatically and insistently.
How Much Does Quality of Competition Matter?
Quality of Competition matters a ton. Don’t believe me? Here’s what the on-ice shot numbers for each of the Oilers’ centres looks like against each of their Sharks’ counterparts. Grey indicates San Jose won the battle; orange that Edmonton did:
Edmonton’s pivots out-shot San Jose’s bottom-six by a total of 13, but San Jose’s top-six out-shot Edmonton by a total of seven. This is why having good depth matters – look at the drubbing that Arcobello’s unit gave to John Scott and the slugs, a drubbing which resulted in this:
That should be a safe moment for San Jose; it’s a neutral zone faceoff against Arcobello Matt Hendricks and Steve Pinizzotto. Todd McLellan opted to run his fourth line (Scott, Tierney and Andrew Desjardins) and his third defence pairing (Matt Tennyson, Scott Hannan) in this safe situation. But Arcobello won the draw, Hendricks boxed out Scott (because hockey ability > 6’8”) to allow Justin Schultz the easy zone entry and five of the worst Sharks couldn’t handle Pinizzotto and Hendricks crashing the net.
But not everyone gets to play against John Scott. And the problem is that when Arcobello and Draisaitl are both in the lineup, the Oilers have two centres that really ought to be getting sheltered. It’s been a problem all season, and obviously it’s a problem that MacTavish recognizes exists. The question is why he hasn’t done anything about it.