The 2016-17 season has been a breakthrough year for the Edmonton Oilers as a team, but at the individual level a number of veterans have had underwhelming years. That includes all three members of the club’s current second line: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Milan Lucic and Jordan Eberle.
There’s been a shift the last few weeks, though, as all three are starting to produce for the Oilers.
Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle has six and seven points respectively in their last eight games. Lucic has six points in his last nine. Critically for Lucic four of those points have come at even-strength; prior to this latest run he’d needed 30-odd games to record his last four even-strength points.
The increased production mostly corresponds with head coach Todd McLellan’s decision to unite the three players on a single line. They’ve been basically full-time partners over the last five games, and saw some time together in the couple of games before that.
“Nuge and Ebs have played a lot in the past, and [we] looked at Looch’s size on that line and somebody that will go to the net for them,” he explained in his availability on Monday. “They’ve gelled well, they’ve played well together over the last three weeks. For us to have success moving forward they’re going to be a pretty important line for us, so we hope that they can continue to play the way they have.”
The line certainly played well against Detroit, but this is more the start of a new trend than it is the continuation of an old one.
We might start with the shot clock. Edmonton has turned things around impressively in terms of puck possession this season—after years of getting shelled by shot attempts, this year the Oilers are an upper-third NHL team by any metric. Against the Red Wings, Edmonton’s second line was a big part of that, winning the Corsis by a 20-10 margin.
That wasn’t the case previously.
At the start of the month, McLellan ran 27/93/14 together for parts of four games. They were out-Corsied 53-32 and outscored 2-0. Understandably, the coach then took the line apart.
But he went back to it after just a few games of total separation, playing it sparingly (an average of four minutes per game) over the first two contests of the Oilers’ six-game road trip before committing to it full-time again. Over that road trip, the line took a 2-0 edge in the goals department but was meh on the shot clock (38 attempts for, 39 against) despite a steady diet of offensive zone minutes.
In all, despite that great Detroit game tipping the scales, the line has been even by goals (3-3) since it was put together at the start of February. The opposition has held a 102-90 edge in shot attempts during its run.
The question then is whether the game against the weak Red Wings was a sign of things to come, or a one-off, and I don’t know the answer. Most of a month isn’t a particularly long time, and 10 shot attempts worth of difference can be made up quickly. One more game like the last one would do it.
What is certain is that Edmonton’s coaches need to find a second line that works during this run of home games in March. The playoffs are right around the corner and the roster is set; this is the final opportunity to fine-tune the lineup and get it operating at maximum potential. If Lucic, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle can bring out the best in each other, it will be a major item removed from the to-do list.