When they’ve been healthy, the combination of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle has been the default option as the top line for the Edmonton Oilers for as long as they’ve been together on the roster. They’ve been the go-to trio. What if that changed?
While history shows that there’s peril in reading too much into wins, losses and individual performances at a point in the season when the games don’t matter in the standings, we’ve seen some good things and possibilities in recent weeks – specifically, in the time a busted bone in Hall’s leg separated him from RNH and Eberle.
Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle continued to prove they can produce points without Hall on their left side in a 4-0 win over the Dallas Stars Friday as No. 4 continued to work his way back into the line-up, playing his fourth game since returning from his injury.
Eberle got the winner just 33 seconds into the game and now has 22-38-60, including a 10-game stretch in which he’s scored 7-9-16. Nugent-Hopkins had an assist on the play and has 23-32-55 on the season. He has an identical 7-9-16 in his last 10 games. Benoit Pouliot, taking Hall’s spot on LW, hit his career-high for goals, notching his 17th of the season.
In an era when it’s far more common for coaches to lean on twosomes in combination, it doesn’t make sense to use ink on the line-up card when it comes to marking in Pouliot as the left winger for RNH and Eberle. That said, he’s been a nice fit when he’s lined up with them. He appears, at the very least, to be a decent option.
So, what about Hall, who has 1-3-4 since his return? If we’re talking about here and now with the players available to coach Todd Nelson in the games that remain, many of you have suggested you’d like to see him alongside Derek Roy and Nail Yakupov. I’d like to see Nelson roll the bones on that combination as well.
Contrary to what some believe, Hall and Yakupov have actually been pretty good when they’ve played together, as Jason Gregor pointed out here in an item he wrote. Remaining games won’t tell us for sure if a trio of Hall, Roy and Yakupov is a fit in the long term, but a look-see might at least provide an indication of possibilities down the road.
Roy and Yakupov, of course, are wildcards. As good as he’s been beside Roy, we can’t say for sure Yakupov is ready for consistent top-six minutes. It looks like he’s turned a corner, but it’s too soon to say. As for Roy, we don’t know if he’ll even be here. What if the lottery goes Edmonton’s way and Jack Eichel enters the mix? What about Leon Draisaitl?
MIX AND MATCH
Obviously, there’s lots of room for error playing what-if? The bottom line for me is I like the idea of an Oiler line-up where the vast majority of the offensive eggs aren’t tossed into the same basket with the default line of Hall, RNH and Eberle.
The Oilers become a more balanced team and they’ll give opposing coaches more problems getting the line and defensive pairing match-ups they want if there’s a way to turn Edmonton’s three best offensive players into two lines. That’s not a news flash, but it’s easier said than done.
For now, let’s see more of Pouliot with RNH and Eberle. If that’s above Pouliot’s capability over the long haul, so be it, but let’s find out. Let’s see Hall with Roy and Yakupov. If Roy moves along, a tandem of dynamic wingers in Hall and Yakupov might look dandy flanking Draisaitl or . . ? The third piece is somebody who can distribute the puck.
WHILE I’M AT IT
- I understand the sentiment that fuels the segment of fans who embrace the idea of losing every game to end an already lost season for a better draft pick, especially with Connor McDavid and Eichel at the top of the board. I just can’t get on board with it.
I’m not going to suggest that winning games now will carry over to next season in terms of results – we know that isn’t so – but I enjoyed watching the injury riddled and overmatched line-up Nelson put on the ice last night stick a knife in the playoff hopes of Dallas.
- Any suggestion about walking away from Justin Schultz and letting him go for nothing is crazy talk. I’m a $5 cab ride from being anything resembling a Schultz supporter, but he’s an NHL defenseman and the Oilers don’t have enough of those.
When – if – GM Craig MacTavish assembles enough depth on the blue line, Schultz will be a serviceable second or third pairing guy who can contribute on the power play. MacTavish would be a fool to send Schultz away for nothing this off-season.