Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Scrutinizing The Lineup

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.

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I expect that the top 9 forwards will look like this (barring injury):

Maroon McDavid Draisaitl

Lucic Nugent-Hopkins Eberle

Pouliot Desharnais Kassian

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I expect the top 4 defenders will look like this:

Klefbom Larsson

Sekera Russell

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Isn’t this a lot more fun than talking about the draft?

  • OilersRheal

    In the off season & looking to the future a few moves will be made. I see Pouliot being waved/traded or bought out.
    I also hope that Puljujarvi will be able to be the #1 RW so Drai can move to 2C with Lucic and Eberle and looking at the cap and signing McD & Drai RNH becomes the odd man out so he could be traded for any suitable return. I think the top 9 early on season 2017-18 looks like:

    Maroon McDavid Puljujarvi
    Lucic Draisaitl Eberle
    Caggiula Desharnais Kassian/Slepyshev

    Any return for RNH must include a dependable back up G who can play 20-22 games so I think Montoya in Mtl for RNH and whoever else but probably not Sergachev…

  • DiscoBiscuits

    Benning’s never played more than 40 games in a season. They need to rest him, it’s as simple as that. You can see the same reasoning behind picking up Desharnais at the trade deadline to take over the 3C role while still slotting Caggiula into the lineup for a few games. And you can see it in 97’s minutes the last few games—lately it’s been down to 17+ min a game, 2nd line minutes.

  • hockey1099

    I dont know why i read Matt’s blogs. I swear he only looks at stats and doesnt watch the team. Gryba had some bad plays last night but benning has not been outstanding as of late. He is a rookie defenceman. He is not taking Russell’s spot. Get over it. Advanced stats are a tool that can be used at times but they are not nearly as useful as the Tyler Delow’s of the world think. Filing a veterans spot with a rookie with 55 games under his belt is about as Smart as trading McDavid for Yak right now. Keep second guessing a great coach who is got this team playing like a contender on most nights, hockey is more than numbers. You need a team to win and different skill sets to make up a team. Sometimes grit will help you win more than skill will. Last night was a perfect example. The oilers didnt get pushed around last night like they have in past years. LA couldnt match our skill or grit and we put a nail in their coffin. Watch and enjoy the games. Do your numbers break downs when the oilers are done for the year. You will several dry months in July and augsut to break out the calculator.

    • someguy

      Amen brother. I find Matt is the blogger on this site I dislike the most. Conveniently we haven’t heard him defending Yak anymore – is it because he’s obviously a bust? Yeah, I’d say so. You are correct, advanced stats aren’t the cat’s meow and still have a degree of subjectivity to them. Once that’s gone, maybe then I’ll be more on board with them, but until then I’m sticking more to traditional stats.

      • McPucker

        I don’t understand why you guys complain about Matt. It’s not just you two.

        Sure, he comes across as a pompous ass at times but he’s very consistent with his facts and opinions. His name is at the beginning of the article. Maybe you just shouldn’t read them, otherwise he seems to be doing his job just fine.

  • Free Bird

    Matt, you have no place to be placing extra scrutiny on Chiarelli’s or McLellan’s decisions regarding personnel decisions during the playoffs. After all of your belly-aching and criticism of Chiarelli over the Hall, Yakupov and Marincin moves, it seems clear that the professionals working for the Oilers know a lot more than you do. Now you’re second-guessing how they’re handling Gryba and Benning. Really? Stop conjecturing over the reasons why one played over the other and go ask McLellan at the next press conference. Or do you even have access to those? Pointless article. Again.

  • Hammer8

    The game is about to change folks. Playoffs= fn toughness and battless. Yes it will be fast too. We need guys who can “bust the fn puck loose” for supporting forwards. D zone play is HUGE.