Necessity, according to the old saying, is the mother of invention. It certainly explains how the line of Taylor Hall, Leon Draisaitl and Teddy Purcell ended up playing together against the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday.
The surprise is that the line worked. If it continues to work as other players get healthy, the Oilers may just be able to run two competent scoring lines even in the absence of Connor McDavid.
Certainly that’s what head coach Todd McLellan is hoping for; he hinted on Monday that the plan was to keep that unit together and perhaps build a second line around Ryan Nugent-Hopkins:
We’ll see how strong Nuge is when he gets healthy and when that happens and then we’ll make some decisions moving forward. I liked Teddy Purcell’s game; I thought it was his best of the year against a heavy team. I thought that line with Leon and Taylor drove the team that night, provided a lot of offence, fairly good defensively. That’s a really positive sign. I know that Pouliot, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle have played in the past and been productive, so maybe we’re working towards something to get a little bit of depth, offensive depth from two lines, but we need to get guys healthy and up and running to get to that point.
That’s a pretty reasonable plan, and might lead to a forward depth chart that looks something like this:
That looks good on paper, but there are some potential challenges.
Jordan Eberle. Eberle’s health has been an issue this season; I doubt we’ve even seen one game yet from him where he’s truly at 100 percent. It’s hard not to flash back to last season, where he had real difficulty shooting in the early months of the year and was a major contributor to the Oilers problems in the shooting percentage department. If he’s healthy, he can help carry a line. Edmonton needs that right now.
Teddy Purcell. Purcell had a brilliant game against the Kings; arguably he out-shone even his impressive linemates. Still, there are going to be those who wonder if he’s really capable of holding down this job for more than a game or two at a time; Purcell’s stint in Edmonton hasn’t exactly been an unqualified success. Of interest: He was at his best in limited minutes with Hall last season, and has a history as a complementary winger to marquee talent. Since joining the Oilers, Purcell and Hall together have a 52.5% Corsi number, which represents a massive bump on Purcell’s work without Hall but also represents a small bump on Hall’s work without Purcell. I’m not saying it’s definitely going to work, but there’s a decent chance it does. It’s also worth keeping in mind that Purcell is in a contract year.
Benoit Pouliot. One of the problems with looking at just point totals is that it doesn’t show the difference between power play success and five-on-five success (it also doesn’t account for ice-time, but that’s another matter). Pouliot has always been underrated at five-on-five because he’s not very good on the power play, but since 2010-11 he’s scored 138 points at even-strength. That ranks No. 116 in the league, which is top-end second line production even before we allow for the fact that he’s generally played bottom-six minutes. In terms of points/hour at evens over the same span, he’s tied for No. 60 in NHL scoring, with Brandon Saad and Henrik Zetterberg, ahead of people like Jeff Carter, Eric Staal and Logan Couture. The man can play top-six minutes in the NHL at five-on-five so there’s no need to worry about him.
Anton Lander/Mark Letestu. Yes, the bottom two lines are centered by men who have been offensive non-factors so far this season. Lander’s a mess, seemingly having reverted to his pre-Todd Nelson impotence. Letestu wasn’t placed in a position to produce offence early, so there’s at least a chance he breaks out (relatively speaking) in a top-nine role, but it needs to happen fast. Looking long-term, Lander’s only being paid to be a fourth-line guy, but Letestu is 30 years old and pulling down $1.8 million per season this year and two more; that’s pricey if he ends up being a pure fourth-line centre.
Nail Yakupov. Sticking Yakupov in this role stinks. It really does. There’s an off chance it could work; it gives him two veterans with good defensive credentials, it makes him the feature player on the line and if Letestu can recapture some of his past scoring touch Yakupov might not even have to carry the offensive load alone. It’s still not close to ideal, and if we’re coming up with reasons the McDavid injury is a huge problem it’s hard to look past this one.