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Photo Credit: James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports

McDavid with Draisaitl Makes Sense

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl together at even strength equals instant offence. They read off each other incredibly well. Draisaitl is one of the few players who thinks and sees the game at the same level. Last night Draisailt could have easily had five goals. He hit two goal posts and was robbed twice by Antti Niemi. “It is rare you score three points in the NHL, but are still frustrated,” Draisaitl said post-game. “I owe them (linemates) some goals. I don’t think I’ve ever had that many great chances in a game.”

They still finished with three points each. It is rare to see two centres play so well together, yet when they are placed on the same line many fans and some media are quick to suggest you can’t win with them on the same line.

I’m sorry, but I politely disagree.

I think everyone agrees the Oilers current roster is not a Stanley Cup contending roster. Let’s get that out of the way and focus on more reasonable scenarios.

I recognize the goal of every team is to win the Stanley Cup, but at the start of a season there is maybe — maybe — ten teams with a realistic chance to win. Right now the Oilers aren’t one of them, but they do have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs, and once they are in they could win one round.

McDavid and Draisaitl as a duo are the most dangerous combination the Oilers have. I don’t think anyone who watches the team regularly will dispute this. If your goal is to make the playoffs, then playing them together makes sense. Let me explain.

It is difficult to find a comparable team with two skilled centres who have scored 70+ points twice and are 23 years of age or younger.

The obvious one is the Pittsburgh Penguins. Unfortunately Corsica and Natural Stat Trick only track back to the 2007/2008 season, but that timeline does fit nicely with the comparison I’d like to illustrate.

The Penguins lost the 2008 Cup Finals to Detroit, but then defeated the Red Wings in 2009. Sidney Crosby was 20 and 21 while Malkin was 21 and 22 during those Cup runs. They were the Penguins best players.

Did you know that during those two seasons Malkin was Crosby’s most common linemate at 5×5? I doubt it, because when I hear comparisons about the Crosby/Malkin and McDavid/Draisaitl I always hear who they each drive their own line. They do now that they are established NHL veterans, and have better depth around them, but when they were young they played together quite often.

Why? Because they produced and because the Penguins didn’t have anyone who could play with them and produce consistently.

Over those two seasons Crosby played 1,842 minutes at 5×5. His most common linemates were:

Malkin at 709 minutes
Pascal Dupuis 476 minutes
Miroslav Satan 347 minutes
Ryan Malone 312 minutes
Colby Armstrong 283 minutes.

Crosby missed 30 games in 2008, but that season he played 54% of his 5×5 time with Malkin.

You don’t win the Stanley Cup in the regular season, but getting to the playoffs gives you a chance. Head coach Michel Therrien played his two best players together quite often because it gave him the best opportunity to win games. His General Manager, Craig Patrick, was astute enough to realize,  during both the 2008 and 2009 seasons, that he needed to add a better supporting cast near the trade deadline.

On February 26th, 2008 he acquired Hal Gill for a 2nd and a 5th. Gill played 19:17/game in the playoffs, fourth most among Penguins defenders behind Ryan Whitney (20:46), Rob Scuderi (20:47) and Sergei Gonchar (25:13).

The same day Patrick acquired Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis from Atlanta for Colby Armstong, Erik Christenson, Angelo Esposito (20th pick in 2007) and their upcoming first round pick in 2008 (29th, Daulton Leveille).

Hossa and Dupuis ended up being Crosby’s regular linemates in the playoff run, while Malkin played with Petr Sykora and Ryan Malone. Once the team added more depth, the centres were split up.

2009 SEASON

Nov 23, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (97) and left wing Milan Lucic (27) celebrate the goal of center Leon Draisaitl (29) in the third period against the Colorado Avalanche at the Pepsi Center. The Oilers won 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Hossa didn’t stay in Pittsburgh, and Malone’s rights, along with Gary Roberts, were traded to Tampa Bay at the draft for a 3rd and 4th round pick. The Penguins didn’t want to pay Malone big money. He signed a seven year deal worth $4.5 million with Tampa Bay. He’d scored 27-24-51 in 2008. He had four solid seasons in Tampa Bay, before injuries and a DUI slowed him down, but he didn’t become more than what he was in Pittsburgh. He had 45, 47 and 48 point seasons with the Lightning.

Hossa and Malone were their 2nd and 4th leading scorers in the playoffs, so they lost two of their top-six forwards in the summer. But they had Kris Letang emerging on the blueline, Marc-Andre Fleury in goal and two elite scorers.

During the 2009 regular season Malkin and Crosby played almost 400 minutes together at 5×5, and of course were on the top PP unit.

Once again Patrick made some key moves at the deadline to bolster his top-six.

He traded Whitney to Anaheim for Chris Kunitz on February 26th, and then at the deadline on March 4th he acquired Bill Guerin for a third round pick.

Once again his two deadline acquisitions became Crosby’s wingers in the playoffs, while Malkin centred Ruslan Fedotenko and Max Talbot. Talbot scored both goals in their 2-1 in game seven of the Cup Final against Detroit. Kunitz only had one goal, but he and Guerin were the Penguins third and fourth leading scorers in the postseason with 15 and 14 points.

Crosby and Malkin carried them offensively. Malkin had 36 points and Crosby had 31. They didn’t play very much together at 5×5, but in the short 40 minutes they did they produced six goals. When the Penguins needed a goal, head coach Dan Bylsma wasn’t afraid to reunite them.

WIN IN REGULAR SEASON

Mar 1, 2016; Buffalo, NY, USA; Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (97) and center Leon Draisaitl (29) before a game against the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Again, I’m not remotely suggesting the Oilers are Stanley Cup contender. Far from it at this point. And yes, playing Draisaitl and McDavid illustrates that they need some more scoring wingers, however, playing them together now is the smart move. The team needs wins and they must make the playoffs. If they are in the hunt, and they should be come trade deadline, then it is up to general manager Peter Chiarelli to acquire some wingers who can complement his two centres.

Also, I’m not saying Draisaitl will be as good as Malkin, in fact I’d be surprised if he is, because Malkin is unreal. I believe he was the second best centre in the NHL for a the past decade, just behind Crosby, and even though they were great individually, their coach also played them together a fair amount during the regular season because it gave his team the best chance to win. But Draisaitl is very good, and while he isn’t the second best centre in the NHL behind McDavid, I believe he is better than many of his doubters suggest.

The GM’s job is to build and bolster the roster. The head coach’s job is to win games and if I’m Todd McLellan I’d keep Draisaitl and McDavid together for the foreseeable future. Maybe the Oilers will have a winger or two emerge from within who can score more, but if not, then it will be Chiarelli’s responsibility to make a good trade closer to the deadline.

Recently by Jason Gregor:

  • Hemmercules

    Just win Todd. Do whatever you have to do. Play those two together for 30 minutes a night for all I care. Every year without playoffs is just wasting the best player in the world.

  • Datsyukian

    I agree. Why are folks repeating this “each driving his own lane” mantra? So what if we have $20M on one line if that line works and scares the hell out of opponents? All this “balance” talk is just hair splitting. Does it work now and here? Go with it!

  • THANK YOU! I have been saying this for a while now. Also, even though tit seems like an odd comparison, it parallels the Koskinen/Talbot question: play the hot hand. Let them eat. If your goalie is winning, let them roll. If you have two hot players who can put up a handful of goals each night, who CARES if the third line is weak? Do enough as a team to keep the opposition at bay, and let McDavid and Neon Leon do their thing.

    Oh, and in the meantime, you’re building confidence in both players. You know what scorers love doing? Scoring goals! In two years, when Looch is gone, Kailer and Jesse have either developed or been traded for talent, then we can see what Drai can do on his own line. Let’s do it. C’mon.

  • Odanada

    I watched the game last night and the performance said it all. McDavid needs someone to play at his level and Leon sure seems to be that guy.
    You gotta run with this.

  • Heschultzhescores

    Good article and research. My take is similar though I also think there are other benefits of McD and Drai together. They create a ton of chances and get us o the scoreboard which in turn lowersthd confidence of the defenders and the opposing goaltender. Plus and plus. The other thing it creates is a US pushing our game at them and not waiting for them to bring it to us. Confidence trickles down to the lower lines and before you know it we have secondary scoring. We have the best duo in hockey, let’s bask in that and see where they can take us.