The season is winding down. The Oilers continue to trend towards the playoffs for the first time in a very, very long time. What will this team’s lineup look like when they get to the post-season? Are we getting a preview of the kinds of decisions that McLellan is going to make now in the final push of the regular season?
The Oilers are very likely going to make the playoffs. McLellan’s lineup is going to be under more scrutiny than ever as an Oiler. Up to now, he’s been able to put players in and take players out with very few question. Once the playoffs begin, every decision is questioned. Every decision needs to have a reason. Fans will remember that the last time they made the playoffs a coin flip for the backup goaltender position in game 1 of a series may have ultimately lost the club a Stanley Cup.
So everything matters, regardless if we’re talking about a backup goaltender, sixth defenseman, or fourth line winger.
When we look to what Todd McLellan’s lineup decisions will be in the playoffs, they should be informed by what they will be in the regular season. There are very few people coming in and out. For the most part, the Oilers lineup will not be a surprise. I very much doubt, for example, that in Game 1 we’ll see Draisaitl back at Centre and Nuge riding shotgun with McDavid. That’s just not something that McLellan has tinkered with in a very long time.
I expect that the top 9 forwards will look like this (barring injury):
Maroon McDavid Draisaitl
Lucic Nugent-Hopkins Eberle
Pouliot Desharnais Kassian
I expect the top 4 defenders will look like this:
It’s the fourth line and the third pairing where there has been the most consistent flux in lineup decisions. Does Pakarinen, Khaira, Slepyshev, or Hendricks play? Does Gryba or Benning play? If the Oilers are lucky, those decisions don’t cost them games, but the truth is that everybody will scrutinize these calls by the coaching staff.
There’s one name among those six mentioned in the last paragraph that doesn’t belong in the rotation in and out of the lineup. The others, I understand. They are either young, old, or one-dimensional. Matthew Benning, however, has done enough in my eyes to be a regular defender. If he’s healthy he should be playing, but as recently as the game against the Kings he was made a healthy scratch to put Eric Gryba in the lineup.
Maybe he’s battling injury and the team is keeping it hush. Maybe the effects of the concussion he sustained are still being felt. I’m not sure and Chiarelli’s Oilers are always silent on player injuries. All I can say for certain is that the Oilers were facing a team that has traditionally out-grinded them and in response, the coach took Benning out and out Gryba in.
It is definitely possible that the coaching staff just wanted to get Gryba some game time before the playoffs too. It seems perfectly reasonable to do that since anything can happen and Gryba would be 1 injury away from the lineup at any time. The problem with that theory is that the Oilers play the Avalanche twice this week and in the 2nd half of a back-to-back on Thursday. There are clearly softer places to play your seventh defender if all you want is for him to get some reps in.
I think we have to explore the possibility that Todd McLellan simply prefers Gryba to Benning when games are about to get physical. Gryba is by far the toughest defender on the roster. He leads the defence by a country mile in Hits per Game. He’s big and heavy and does a decent job separating man from puck.
Benning isn’t too shabby there himself, though. We’ve seen him line up guys for the big hit plenty in his young career. He is almost two times as likely to lay a hit in a game than Kris Russell, who is ranked right after him in that category. Unlike Gryba, though, Benning is a superior puck mover who has been trending in the right direction offensively all year. He has been a favourite of numbers guys and traditional observers alike this season. There’s a case to be made that he ought to be in Russell’s spot as early as next season.
I’m not among those would argue that. I would say it should happen now, but I digress.
The point here is that when the games get “tougher” we’ve seen McLellan take Benning out of the lineup to put the bigger Gryba in. Gryba is plenty tough and I’m not suggesting he’s a poor fit on the 3rd pairing. However, Benning is Edmonton’s defensive leader in shot attempt percentage, unblocked shot attempt percentage, shot percentage, and goals for percentage. Taking him out at all is hard to justify.
Hockey in the playoffs is not going to get any easier. The Oilers will likely be facing teams just as big and tough as Los Angeles in games that will be another level of intensity higher than we’ve seen in 10 years. Will we be seeing Benning give way for the larger and more physical player then too? If so, then I think this team will have to answer some questions about its decision-making with the lineup. It’s a level of scrutiny the Oilers haven’t had to face in a long time.
Isn’t this a lot more fun than talking about the draft?