After a disheartening loss that saw the team’s losing streak extend to four games, Todd McLellan has whipped out the blender. This time, he’s going back to his old, trusty solution of putting Leon Draisaitl alongside Connor McDavid on the top line. Unfortunately, that isn’t the solution to what ails this team.
— Daily Faceoff (@DailyFaceoff) November 12, 2018
The issue plaguing the Oilers how to manage the ice time when Connor McDavid is on the bench. When he’s on the ice, as you’d expect, the team does well. It’s when he’s watching from the bench that the team struggles. Specifically, the team is virtually devoid of offensive flair unless McDavid is on the ice, driving play forward.
McDavid has played 277:18 minutes at even strength this season. In those minutes, the Oilers are outshooting their opponents 172 to 145 and they’re outscoring their opponents 12 to nine. When he isn’t playing, things go to hell pretty quickly. 524:37 minutes of even strength ice time have been played with McDavid watching from the bench. In those minutes, the team has been outshot slightly, 256 to 250, and they’ve been outscored heavily, 22 to 13.
McLellan’s way of shaking things up and dealing with the issue is going back to the old familiar of loading up a line with McDavid and Draisaitl. Everyone knows the McDavid and Draisaitl pairing is dynamic, as the duo has outscored opponents 76 to 53 since the beginning of the 2016-17 season when together, but this doesn’t fix the bigger issue at hand.
What the Oilers need is to generate offence without McDavid on the ice. Moving their second best forward from his own line on to McDavid’s line isn’t going to help do that. Even if McDavid and Draisaitl score at a better pace than McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have so far this season, the issue of how to manage the other ~30 even strength minutes still looms large.
McDavid has proved that he can generate offence pretty much no matter who he’s playing with. He has a positive goal differential at even strength over the past two seasons when playing with literally everyone except for Drake Caggiula. With that in mind, McLellan should be focusing more on how to navigate the team’s non-McDavid minutes than adding another weapon to the wing of a player who can thrive regardless of the setting.
One thing McLellan, oddly enough, has never tried, is loading the second line behind McDavid with Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl. Between 2017-18 and so far in 2018-19, Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl have played just 99:22 minutes of even strength ice time together. In that small sample, they outshot opponents heavily, 66 to 44, and outscored them seven to five. At the very least, in pairing these two up, you’re putting your second and third best forwards on a line together to take some of the pressure off of McDavid.
If you look at the Pittsburgh Penguins, their strategy has generally been to play Sidney Crosby with two random wingers while another line, like one featuring Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist, and Carl Hagelin, gets loaded up. That way, they become significantly more difficult to line match and shut down.