Watching the Pittsburgh Penguins dominate
the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup final had to be interesting for the
managers of the Edmonton Oilers. In a lot of ways, the Pens’ roster—though obviously
better—has similarities to that of the Oilers.
Like Edmonton, Pittsburgh has a
relatively weak defence that needed careful management. Like Edmonton, the
Penguins boast a collection of high-end scoring stars mixed with less potent
depth pieces. It’s worth looking at how Pittsburgh found success with that
profile of roster. It starts with how they use their forwards.
Edmonton’s approach in Todd
McLellan’s first year with the team has been to concentrate scoring power on
two lines. In fairness to McLellan, a) injuries didn’t leave him much choice
and b) it’s still debatable to what degree a coach should load lines up and/or
distribute talent throughout his top-nine.
What isn’t debatable is that the
last two Cup winners have for the most part taken a “distributed” approach.
Chicago has generally played Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on separate lines,
creating matchup problems for the opposition. Pittsburgh took things a step
further in the playoffs with three potent lines:
Conor Sheary / Sidney Crosby / Patric Hornqvist. The top line was
built on the duo of Crosby and Hornqvist, with the left wing varying depending
on any number of factors. For the most part, though, Sheary was the choice
despite bringing even less size to the mix than his linemates and despite being
a 23-year-old NHL rookie of no particular pedigree.
Carl Hagelin / Nick Bonino / Phil Kessel. This was perhaps the team’s
most “loaded” line. Bonino has been a stats darling for years despite his seeming
lack of cachet league-wide. Hagelin’s a brilliant player in a lot of ways and skates
like the wind, though the “he’s never scored 20 goals or had 40 points” club
doesn’t like him. Kessel, meanwhile, was much
vilified during his time in Toronto but was the Penguins most reliable
offensive contributor in the postseason.
Chris Kunitz / Evgeni Malkin / Bryan Rust. Malkin had a disappointing
playoffs in some ways, but still put up 18 points in 24 games. Kunitz scored at
the ~40 point pace which seems to be his new level. Rust, another tiny rookie
with an unremarkable past, scored six goals. This unit had some key moments, particularly
in the third round.
Coach Mike Sullivan clearly
believes it’s a top-nine league and deployed his talent accordingly. Sheary and
Rust are unconventional choices for the top-nine, but both have some key points
in their favour. A key one is salary. Pittsburgh spends big on its stars
(Crosby, Malkin, to a lesser degree Kessel) and has some pricey complementary
pieces in Hornqvist, Hagelin and Kunitz. Rust and Sheary combined have a cap
hit of just $1.3 million next year.
Additionally, both guys can play.
Sheary is tiny but put up big numbers in the AHL and scored 1.8 points/hour at
evens in the playoffs. Rust is another player who fits the “soft skill” mold so
derided in Edmonton (he’s a 5’11”, 192-pound winger who has taken just 16 minor
penalties in 118 career pro games) but he had a 54 percent Corsi rating in the
Obviously, neither guy is driving
results on his line, but being able to play a complementary role at that price
point makes both great bargains.
The funny thing is that if
Edmonton wants to do so, it can follow Pittsburgh’s lead easily enough by
building three lines around forward pairs:
- Connor McDavid and one of Benoit
Pouliot or Jordan Eberle
- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the other
- Taylor Hall and Leon Draisaitl
Split those six players over
three lines, fill in the gaps with complementary pieces (there are probably a
half-dozen options just internally, starting with Patrick Maroon) and then use
the fourth line in a defensive zone role as Pittsburgh did with Matt Cullen’s
Reading the tea leaves, I’m
skeptical that Edmonton plans to employ a three-line attack, but I wonder
whether Pittsburgh’s success late in the year might not change that view.
The Draft Party
There are few certainties in life – we can always count on the sun coming up in the morning, Edmonton winters being dreadful, and the Oilers missing the playoffs. As such, we present the annual OilersNation Draft Party! It’s time to honour the the anniversary of drafting our beloved Connor, celebrate the rewards of another failed season, and raise some money for charity.
Here’s what you need to know…
The party is happening at the Pint Downtown on Friday, June 24th. The goal is to raise as much money as possible for the Red Cross and their efforts to bring normalcy back to Fort McMurray, and have a little bit of fun while we’re at it. For $30 you get a Draft Party t-shirt, a $10 Pint GC, a $10 Oodle Noodle GC, a draft party collectors cup, and a chance for prizes and eternal glory.
All proceeds from tickets sold will be donated directly to the Red Cross so bring your friends, get involved, and help us support a community in need. Tickets are still available here.
One day, the Oilers will be a good hockey team and we’ll all be able to laugh about this. Until then, we party.