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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:

  • Rufio Barcoli

    Now we just need Hopkins and Strome todevelop that same two center dynamic.

    I’m still sticking to my guns in belief that Hopkins and Strome are the answer on the 2nd line Oilers are looking for.

    • cityofchampions

      Gave you a rare cheer, as I do agree that Hopkins and Strome should be tried on the 2nd line. Marody can center the third and probably be just as effective as Strome.

  • 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!

  • CMG30

    I agree that McDavid and LD are a potent combination. Trouble is that the GM has slotted LD in as the 2nd line center and locked him in there due to the contract he doled out. Tmac can get away with playing them together for short periods but it won’t last…

    • QuitForRealThisTime

      Disagree…the cap will inevitably go up. Allowing the potential to add a good winger (even if JP or Yamo do not grw into this player) The best chance for a cup to return to Edmonton is still 4 years away. By the then the cap will allow the Oil to grab good deadline players. Have young players like JP and Yamo develop. Nuge is solid to good 2 line centre.

    • Gull

      Just like Lucic on the third line. The contract should not make a difference where a player plays in the lineup. what’s the difference between RNH at six million on the wing or Drai on the wing at 8 million?

    • $20M on one line for them to score 2-3pts a night is worth it. Nugent-Hopkins and Leon can switch on and off of McDavid’s line every 8-10 games and keep the defenses on it’s heels. All 30 other HCs would do the same if they had a generational player and 2 other top-3 picks who can play wing and center.

  • 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.

  • Oilers_1978

    no doubt McD and LD are deadly…but it’s not a long term solution…resource wise and also money wise…

    McD is McD…management should look to develop/find two reasonable wingers for him..more emphasis should be put on wingers with elite finish…

    McD and LD are two best play makers on oilers, and LD is may be the best finisher as well.. they two click so much because they can finish off the opportunities…

    LD is very good but he will need at least one more good -to – elite partner to be successful as center…

  • 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.

  • Dallas Eakins Hair

    There isn’t any denying the combination of McDavid Draisaitl on the ice pays dividends, all you have to do is look at their production together, it’s almost like the have this sixth sense of where each other and will go and to just put the puck there and they will get it on net or in it.

    Last night Draisaitl could have had a pile of goals but some of those shots got stop but they were all quality chances, not a lot of garbage but quality chances.

    If this 2nd line can get some chemistry and the 4th line stays going then the 3rd line work with it and see what it can do. If the Oil can get some other lines going that would be great and give opposing teams something to think about.

    The one pronlem is TM loves to whip out the blender, loves it….even when lines are starting to click ( and I am not talking just about Draisaitl and McDavid, it’s like someone who just can’t resist taking something apart even when it works really well.

    I say leave it as it is for now see what Chaisson Reider and Nuge do on that second line and if it does n work well they could always go back to the combinations of 1 and 2 that they had beforehand

  • What the Puck

    Im sure Detroit or Ottawa being in rebuild mode would take picks and prospects for Stone or Mantha. Either of them would fit nicely on right wing. Why won’t chia even try to bolster this roster?

    • TKB2677

      You do realize that in order to get players like that, you actually have to give up something of value right? Offering Lucic as an example doesn’t do that as much as the average Oilers fans in their dream world wishes.

    • QuitForRealThisTime

      How do you know he hasn’t? How do you know the above mentioned teams want to trade the mentioned players? How do you know that what they want is picks and prospects if they were looking to trade them?

    • crabman

      I don’t see Mantha as the type of player to be moved from a rebuilding team. 24 years old with another year under contract after this one and still an RFA after that. They slow played him and it looks like it has paid off.
      Stone on the other hand I could see being moved. A UFA after this season with a pretty big contract. He will probably be a deadline deal and the ask will be huge. Not sure they will get it but they will try. And with his large cap hit it will probably take until the deadline for most teams that will be interested to be able to fit him under their cap.
      If the Oilers were in a position to add at the deadline and thought they could make a real run Stone would be a good player to go all in on. I just don’t think this is the year to do that.

  • TKB2677

    I personally think long term, you have to have McDavid and Leon split up. You need 2 really good centers in this league and I think Leon is better than Nuge. That being said, it only works if Puljujarvi and Yamo or insert a different young forward turn into legit good top 6 wingers. I thought Puljujarvi would be better than he is right now which is unfortunate. He’s still young so hopefully he gets there. But in the short term, they probably need to run with Leon and McDavid. The only problem with that is they have to be completely dominate like they were against the Habs.

    • IRONman

      97 and 29 score goals together more than they do apart. Nuge is a good second line center. Find Nuge a winger. Teams that score the first goal win the game 67% of the time. Get the first goal with Leon.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • Kurt

      ****I also would keep Puljujarvi with Draisaitl. The Oilers will need two solid lines, or duos, to be competitive so I’d like to see more of #98 and #29 together.** -Jason Gregor. March 15, 2018

      • Jason Gregor

        Yes…playing McDavid and Drai together when team needs a wake up makes sense. Did I write they have to play exclusively together? I said they need a second line at some point, but right now they don’t have people who can do it, so hoping for it would be dumb coaching in my eyes.

        • ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

          A sensible (and likely) idea: play them together when it makes sense. A similar example for me is Toews & Kane where Q typically plays them on separate lines but together when it makes sense: slumps, PPs, late goal needed, etc. Q would often start a playoff series with them on separate lines but you’d see them back together by game 4 or 5 if the Hawks needed to hit it hard. Typically, the Hawks from 2010-2016 won a lot of games 4-5-6-7 in any series they played. Knowing when to mix things up with their key players helped immensely.

  • Spaceman Spiff

    Good column, Jason. My take is I’m OK with McDavid and Draisaitl being an “In Case of Emergency Break Glass” combination, but I’m pretty liberal with the definition of “emergency.” Could be eight or 10 games or whatever it takes to get the Oilers out of a losing streak or a slump. Or maybe it’s just to prime the pump – sometimes you run regular-unleaded, sometimes you run with the premium.

    Longer term? Yeah, it’s probably best to keep them on separate lines, if only to get the other wingers going.

  • OriginalPouzar

    The key to being able to play McDavid and Drai together was somewhat shown last night – the key is the bottom 3 lines, in particular the bottom two lines, being effective.

    This doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be scoring every game, that can’t be expected from the bottom two lines with the current depth, however, they need to be effective in the sense that they are playing in the offensive zone, they are creating or maintaining momentum and are not getting caved.

    If the bottom lines are getting caved in their own zone consistently, it ruins the flow and will even take momentum away from the top line.

    Last night, all the lines were rolling – the fourth line was creating pressure and chances shift after shift and the third line wasn’t far behind.

    With Nuge on the 2nd line, I don’t see it getting caved shift after shift all that often and will generally be able to saw off or come close.

    Having the bottom 6 play like last night allows the 1st line stack!

      • Dallas Eakins Hair

        Yeah well after the video fallout I dont see the Sens keeping him, I know the guys did a mea cupla, but you cant put the genie back in the bottle, I think they will trade him, the Sens have to be concerned about attitude of players after that fiasco. Look with Karlsson and Hoffman thing and they didnt want that around the team either

    • Leichs

      Things like this get me excited for next year. We have some great young players coming up. Maybe a second line of McLeod Nuge and Yam next year? Thats a good amount of speed and hockey IQ and all three guys are not afraid of the dirty areas. There are so many possibilities for line combinations when those guys are ready to go. Maybe in a year or two.

  • camdog

    Its fun watching Connor destroy teams that have weaker league average defence, that are also playing leaky hockey. Let’s be serious it didn’t matter who was going to be on his line last night.

  • Vanoil

    They are good together until they aren’t. Do you remember why they were split up in the 2016 play-offs? Just remember the level of opposition they were up against last night — a rebuilding Montreal squad. This wasn’t Nashville, or Tampa, or Boston or Pittsburgh, or any contending team. You can’t win in this league with one line except against perhaps the non-playoff teams. If they want to run the two together then they have to build a second line, but without the likes of Hall, Eberle, or even Matt Barzal (!?!) that is hard to do. Someone here screwed the pooch on this, and guess what, they are still in charge.

      • MacT's Neglected Helmet

        Lucic makes the same as Hall. The cap space they saved from the Eberle – Strome trade was left unused. Barzal is still on his ELC. He will get a huge raise, but you deal with that when it comes.

  • I’ll say it again anchoring Leon to “drive his own line” isn’t the best way to get the most value out of his contract, it’s by constantly using him in different roles and taking advantage of his versatility. He might be the one player in the league who can say he makes Connor McDavid play better. To hell with “McDavid stat inflation”, a 4pt night with McDavid still results in 4 goals which would result in a win 9/10. Who cares what those Eastern trolls say about Leon “being a product of McDavid”? Constantly switching Nuge and Draisaitl on McDavid’s line gives the coaching staff 2 intriguing options every night and would almost be impossible for other teams to plan around.

  • godot10

    The Oilers can’t add wingers, because Lucic $6 million for forever with NMC and buyout proof, because Russell $4 million for a 3rd pairing D, 2.75 more years with effectively a NMC, because Kassian 100% overpaid as a 4th liner, because $1.3 million, unnecessary buyout of Pouliot.

    And all of that is still around next year.

  • OTOF2

    What happened to “three scoring lines”? I guess abandoning the strategy when not good enough to implement it is typical Oilers way. The only thing the Oil have that could be considered strategic is McDavid.

  • BlueHairedApe

    Hopefully they can keep it up..they went dry last year together which is why Nuge was bumped to the wing. Maybe Drake is the key ingredient this year. I noticed that when Drake was good in the 16/17 playoffs so were 97 & 29. Then when Drake sucked last year both 97 & 29 didn’t play as well together.

  • AlexTheOilersFanSince2006

    Who cares about winning the cup? This team, this young and growing team, needs to go through a few playoff losses before they make the trip to Lord Stanely’s Temple of Glory. Make the playoffs and deal with it then. It took Ovi 14 years to win his cup. I think we can be a little patient

  • grumpyKoala

    Nuge is a way better centerman than a winger anyway, I like Drai a lot but he is not a 2 way player by any means. Can he devlop into one, sure but he is not look like someone that want to commit the effort or think the game that way, he dont backcheck and do a lot of coasting, he think offence first and I do not feel anyone from this fan base or mgmt want him accountable anyway. might as well get the most value from him and play him where he can succed. I like to think the celling on Drai is way higher, imagine if he start to care a bit more.

  • Rama Lama

    OK so they make a good pair “ new alert” they were a good pair last year as well………it took TM 20 games this year to figure this out? Troubling!