The last couple of weeks, I’ve asked Oilersnation what the team should do in regards to its fringe forwards and defencemen. These questions about which depth players will crack the roster will largely be sorted based on pre-season games, which was the general consensus in the comments section. This week, I ask another lineup question, this time about Edmonton’s two best players — Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
Last week, Rob Tychkowski reported that Todd McLellan said the Oilers would begin the season with McDavid and Draisaitl, last year’s dynamic duo that produced two-thirds of one of the best lines in hockey, will start the season apart. He also went on to say that he wasn’t going to close the door on it and that the two could end up playing together at some point in the season.
Today’s What Would You Do Wednesday question is how should the Oilers optimize their two star forwards? Should McDavid and Draisaitl play together, giving Edmonton a ridiculously dominant top line that continues to build on the chemistry the two found last season? Or should they be separated, potentially giving the Oilers a dominant one-two punch down the middle?
The case to keep them together…
I think the highlight video above is a perfect representation of how dominant McDavid and Draisaitl were when they played together last season. In that particular clip, the duo are all over the ice, driving play forward, and creating chances in the offensive zone. The overtime goal, though it’s three-on-three, is a perfect example of how Draisaitl is one of very few players who boast a big, strong frame with the capacity to play physically but also the skill and speed to keep up with McDavid.
When on the ice together last season (looking at 660 even strength minutes), the duo had 53.2 per cent of the total shot attempts, 58.1 per cent of total high danger scoring chances, and 62 per cent of the total goals. That’s very, very good.
Draisaitl’s underlying numbers were quite a bit better with McDavid than without. That isn’t really a surprise. Everyone is going to be better when they play with the league’s Most Valuable Player. In 500 even strength minutes without McDavid, Draisaitl posted a 47.5 Corsi For percentage, a 44.0 Dangerous Shots For percentage, and a 46.7 Goals For percentage. That said, McDavid wasn’t the only one pushing the duo’s success, as the captain’s numbers improved when playing alongside Draisaitl by a decent margin.
Long story short, both players make each other better. Chemistry certainly is a thing in hockey. Even though McDavid is amazing and can make pretty much anyone good, he wasn’t able to find success with guys like Jordan Eberle and Milan Lucic who have had quite a bit of success in the NHL before. With Draisaitl, though, McDavid had some of the best results of his career, and the Oilers prospered because of it.
The case to split them up…
I don’t think Leon’s numbers away from McDavid last season really do justice. Maybe I’m cherrypicking because I’m optimistic about him as a player, but I would rather look at his dominant player performance as an indication of who he is than his 500 even strength minutes with a blender of non-McDavid teammates.
Draisaitl was Edmonton’s best player in the playoffs last season. Better than McDavid. He netted six goals and 10 assists in 13 games, leading the team in both goals and points. He was especially dominant in that sixth game against Anaheim at home after the terrible meltdown in Game 5 in Anaheim. That game, Draisaitl answered when Edmonton needed him most. McDavid was being chipped away at by Ryan Kesler, one of the best defensive pests in the game, and Draisaitl stepped up and made a fool of the Ducks, dominating play down low, creating chances in the offensive zone, and potting three goals.
He certainly wasn’t being carried by McDavid as the numbers from last regular season would suggest to a blind observer. But McDavid still played a role in Draisaitl’s success. The Ducks inevitably were forced to put Kesler and the team’s top defencemen out against McDavid, because, well, obviously. As a result, Draisaitl didn’t have to deal with that competition. That’s the biggest pro to splitting the two up — it makes the Oilers virtually impossible to line match against.
This is also the role Draisaitl is being paid to play in. To be completely honest, you simply can’t be paying a player $8.5 million annually to ride shotgun on McDavid’s line when players like Patrick Maroon, Drake Caggiula, or Ryan Strome with cheap price tags can be successful in the role. Also, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, unfortunately, hasn’t proved that he can capitalize on the soft minutes that become available to him if McDavid and Draisaitl are attracting top competition.
I really liked what I saw from Draisaitl in his first pre-season game in Calgary. He looked fast, strong, and motivated, and was pushing play forward and driving offence. Check out that second highlight where he plows through all of Calgary’s defenders and opens up the ice for silky Kailer Yamamoto to bury his first goal as an Oiler. In the same vein, I quite liked Strome and Maroon with McDavid in the other pre-season game. We already know Maroon excels in that shotgun role, but Strome as the third guy in the trio was a question mark. His size and skill should make him successful alongside McDavid, who’s better than anyone at getting the puck to the net.
What say you, Oilers Nation? Should Draisaitl and McDavid stick together and form a dominant line that can crush any D pairing in the league? Or should they split up and drive two lines themselves?