When a team’s go-to guys go away, as they are bound to do from time to time over the course of a season, coaches are left with a couple of choices. They can keep dancing with those who brung ‘em, as in stand pat, or they can change-up the dance card and hope that does the trick. There really isn’t one tried-and-true way that works.
Those are the options facing Edmonton Oilers’ coach Todd McLellan right now after Saturday’s 5-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, a defeat that leaves the Oilers with just one win in their last five games. McLellan did a little bit of both against the Blackhawks at Rogers Place. He stuck with lines that had been struggling to produce goals before changing things up.
I’m not sure what the long-term answer is as McLellan and the Oilers try to get things sorted out – you can certainly make arguments for going either way – but what isn’t up to debate is that McLellan isn’t seeing nearly enough from the players he leans on to put the puck in the net. He’s been getting a whole lot of nothing from his go-to guys over these last five games, a stretch in which the Oilers have scored just five goals. Change things up to provide a short-term jolt? Sure.
Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Jordan Eberle, Milan Lucic, Pat Maroon and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, McLellan’s best six forwards, have hit the scoring skids at the same time, combining for just three goals on 74 shots during this stretch. They can’t put the puck in the ocean off a pier. That’s a whole lot of bupkis from a top end that has been far better than this. So, go back to the old lines and hope they get straightened out or make changes beyond in-game blending – notably separating McDavid and Draisaitl — to generate some zip? You tell me.
WHAT TO DO?
There’s been plenty of talk about the merits, or lack of same, of separating McDavid and Draisaitl of late. Those in the shake-things-up camp believe splitting them up might serve to jumpstart two lines. McLellan was asked about that going into the game with Chicago when he still had them together on the white board and on the ice despite a sputtering attack.
“Most of our offensive opportunities have come through Leon and Connor together,” McLellan said. “We expect Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins and whoever plays with them to get it going a little bit and then that will take a bit of pressure off.” When that expectation didn’t come to pass Saturday, we saw Eberle moved up alongside McDavid and Draisaitl in the middle between Lucic and RNH.
So, what might we see against Arizona Tuesday? What are the options? With everybody in the tank at the same time, it’s not like McLellan can lean on a hot hand or two to throw everybody on their backs and get things moving – at least not based on these last five games, when the Oilers have been outscored 14-5.
- McDavid, who has 18-43-61 this season, leads the way with 1-1-2 and has 16 shots.
- Draisaitl, second in team scoring behind McDavid with 20-27-47, has 1-0-1 and 13 shots.
- Eberle, 11-21-32, doesn’t have a single goal or a point to show for the last five games. He’s had 12 shots.
- Lucic, 11-19-30, has managed just one assist and seven shots during this stretch.
- Maroon, 19-8-27, finally found the net again vs. Chicago with the opening goal and has 1-0-1 and 13 shots.
- Nugent-Hopkins has zeroes across the board and 13 shots in his last five games.
Of course, all of the blame for this 1-4-0 rough patch doesn’t fall on the go-to guys, but the bulk of it does because scoring goals is what the guys in the top six get paid for. Yes, teams need to find secondary scoring – that’s been discussed plenty of late, too – but it’s difficult to find a spark when nobody on the top two lines is getting much done. McDavid, it goes without saying, is looked upon to be the catalyst, but he’s in a lull, too. It happens.
It should be noted that prior to this five-game skid, the Oilers won four of five games and outscored the opposition 21-10, a stretch that included a 7-3 waxing of the Calgary Flames, a 4-1 win over San Jose and a 4-0 blanking of Anaheim. No shortage of scoring there. Same group of forwards. Yet, here we are in the wake of another punchless loss. So, does McLellan put more weight in this five-game stretch and fire-up the blender we saw late against the Blackhawks or look to the previous five games for answers?
For now, it appears to be the former. At today’s morning skate, the lines looked like this: Maroon with McDavid and Eberle, Lucic with Draisaitl and Anton Slepyshev, Drake Caggiula with Nugent-Hopkins and Zack Kassian and Matt Hendricks with Mark Letestu and Benoit Pouliot. So, the short-term jolt it is. We’ll see how long this lasts.
WHILE I’M AT IT
- The Oilers have recalled forward Iiro Pakarinen from a conditioning stint with the Bakersfield Condors of the AHL and sent Anton Lander the other way. Pakarinen will remain on injured reserve.
- The shot clock hasn’t told the tale for the Oilers in the last 10 games. In the last five games, they’ve outshot the opposition in every game, winning just once. In the previous five games, when they won four times, they were outshot four times.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.
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