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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Health, Instant Chemistry and Suddenly a Dangerous Second Line

On November 30th after a solid first two months the Oilers were 16-9-3, in first place in the Pacific Division and fifth overall in the NHL. But when the calendar turned to December, the Oilers started sliding like a car without winter tires. The results were ugly. In the first 30 days of December the Oilers fell from 5th in the NHL down to 18th. Suddenly they couldn’t score. They couldn’t defend and they couldn’t get a save.

They were 4-8-1 in those 30 days. They were outscored 30-47 and their best players struggled at even strength.

Connor McDavid had 14 points in those 13 games, but only 2-5-7 at EV. Leon Draisaitl had a measly 1-2-3 at EV, but 13 points overall. But the oddity was they were getting outscored heavily while on the ice. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had 1-1-2 at EV and only four points overall. He played 10 games. The lack of offensive production from McDavid and Draisaitl at even strength was an outlier, based on their careers. McDavid had never been outscored that much at 5×5 in his career. Draisaitl admittedly had the toughest stretch of his career. He didn’t mince his words when describing his play. “I’ve played like shit. Sorry to use that word,” he said.

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Draisaitl and McDavid’s struggles, by their standards, weren’t going to continue. They are simply too good to get outscored like that at 5×5. While most of us expected them to rebound, I’m not sure many expected it to be on separate lines.

After a humbling 5-1 loss to the Calgary Flames on December 27th, Dave Tippett split up his dangerous duo again, but this time it looks permanent because of the results he has seen. Tippett had split them up prior earlier in the season, but he never received the results he was looking for. He did this time.

What Changed?

Jan 11, 2020; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) celebrates his goal with teammates against the Calgary Flames during the second period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

The Oilers haven’t had a highly productive second line for an extended period of time since March of 2017 when Milan Lucic, Jordan Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins were a productive trio. But now the Oilers have a second line that has been incredibly dangerous offensively, and sound defensively.

Draisaitl has been dominant. Despite incorrect notions that he needs to play with McDavid to produce, Draisaitl has the ability to score away from McDavid. Both have, but rarely can one player “carry” a line. Skill players need to play with other skilled players to be highly productive at 5×5. Nugent-Hopkins has been outstanding, and he’s emerged from his EV scoring slump that plagued him for most of the first three months.

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Nugent-Hopkins only had 7-13-20 in the first 35 games and only 3-6-9 at even strength. A nagging wrist injury was a factor, but he wanted to play better. And now he has.

After the drubbing by the Flames, Tippett changed his lines and we saw a trio we haven’t seen all season.

Kailer Yamamoto was recalled and put on the right wing with Draisaitl playing centre and Nugent-Hopkins on left wing. They’ve had instant success.

Draisaitl has 1-7-8 at EV in the eight games since. RNH has scored 5-3-8 and Yamamoto has chipped in 3-3-6. They have combined for nine goals in eight games at even strength. Draisaitl has 14 points overall while Nugent-Hopkins and McDavid each have 13.

The Oilers are 6-1-1 since the change and they’ve outscored teams 37-24. They scored 30 goals in their previous 13 games.

Mike Smith’s emergence in goal is a major factor in the victories, but the second line’s offensive production, and more importantly, their ability to outscore the opposition, has led the Oilers’ turn around and sends them into their bye week sitting in second place in the Pacific Division, one point behind Vancouver.

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Prior to leaving for some rest and relaxation in a warm climate, I spoke to Nugent-Hopkins about his turnaround and the success of the second line.

How much of a factor was the wrist issue?

“Things like that can change the way you play a little bit,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “I tried to push through for as long as I could before it got to the point where I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do out there. It was kind of frustrating, but I tried to play through it for a while. It got to the point where I needed to take some time. After that it started to feel better, and lately it has been on the mend so it’s one of those things that you can play through for a little while, but eventually you got to take care of it.”

He jammed his wrist hitting a player, and then kept re-aggravating it before he needed to sit out to let it heal. He will benefit from another 10 days off to let it get stronger, but the zip on his snapshot has returned and he’s feeling it offensively with six goals in his last eight games.

Outside of being healthy, he is also more comfortable playing the wing now than he was last year when he skated 376 minutes with Connor McDavid.

“Yeah, the more I play it (wing) the more comfortable I get,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “I played a little bit two years ago and then again last year with Connor and that little time I did play the wing has helped me get used to it. It’s an easier transition now for me to jump in there. At the same time, if I’m the first guy down low guy I can still help out, and I still kind of see things as a center a little bit. Now it is just in a different spot on the ice. I try not to change my game too much, the big thing is to not get caught standing still. On the wing you can kind of stand still sometimes, so you need to keep your feet moving and that gets you into the game a little more.”

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Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl had barely played together prior to these past eight games. Over the previous three seasons, RNH skated only 271 minutes at 5×5 with Draisaitl, and didn’t score one goal. A nice reminder to be leery of small sample sizes. He has five goals in 158 minutes this year. He likely won’t stay this hot, but he and Draisaitl complement one another nicely and Yamamoto has fit in very well.

“He hunts pucks really well, he wins a lot of battles, he gets on guys quick and he’s not an easy guy to beat,” raved Nugent-Hopkins about his young linemate. “He puts pressure on guys, that goal the other day in Calgary when Gaudreau fell. I know he falls, but Yamo is kind of all over him, putting pressure on guys. A lot of the time they’ll make a rush play and we can pick up from there. When you give him a chance to make a good play he definitely see’s the ice well and has a lot of skill to make those plays.”

It is only an eight-game stretch, but considering the elite skill of Draisaitl, the smarts and experience of Nugent-Hopkins and the tenacity of Yamamoto, this line has a very good chance to become a consistently productive second line.

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Last week Yamamoto spoke glowingly about Brad Malone and how he helped him become a better professional this year in Bakersfield. “He talked often about being consistent. He was so supportive and when I was recalled he said, ‘I hope I don’t see you again,” said Yamamoto.

Head coach Dave Tippett echoed those sentiments saying how important it is for your organization to have good veterans to help young players develop in the minors. “Coaches and guys in player development can help, but nothing is better than having a veteran guide you. Now we need someone to help him in the same way at the NHL level,” said Tippett.

Will Nugent-Hopkins be that guy?

“Yeah, I mean especially being on his line,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “He has questions and stuff so it’s good to answer them and lead him in a good direction, but we have a good group in here. He can look to a bunch of guys and find direction. He’s a pretty smart kid and pretty mature for his age, he picks things up fast. You just have to tell him once and he will get it. It’s a good attribute to have as a young guy coming into the NHL.”

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PLAYOFF RUN…

Jan 2, 2020; Buffalo, New York, USA; Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) takes a shot as Buffalo Sabres cednter Jack Eichel (9) looks on in the first period at KeyBank Center. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

No Oilers player has felt the pain of the past decade more than Nugent-Hopkins. He’s played the most games, 582, with Edmonton since being drafted first overall in 2011. Draisaitl is next at 400, Oscar Klefbom at 365 and McDavid with 336. The player fans call “Nuge” or sometimes still “Baby Nuge” understands the frustration and anger of fans better than any player on the roster.

And, like you, he can’t wait to return from the bye week and All-Star break and secure only his second playoff berth in nine seasons.

“Yeah it’s great being in this spot,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “It’s a dog fight in the standings right now and that makes it fun. Every game is so important, it doesn’t matter who we play now, every two points his huge. Knowing what we have been through in the past (losing), it adds something more for sure. We’ve been working hard this year, we’ve gone through some ups and downs, but we’re finding our game now and we need to keep going and keep confidence in our group.

“The way we worked today in practice is a good example of how we can bring that to games. After Christmas we had a rough game against Calgary, then we had a couple days of good practices and then we started to roll. I think our practice habits have been a little bit better since then. Just the way we work, it doesn’t matter what drill it is, everybody is skating hard, working hard, trying to push each other a little bit and I think it goes a long way.”

No one knows how far it will go, but after a disappointing December the Oilers are back in a playoff spot, and the second line has played a prominent role. Nugent-Hopkins is looking to be a key contributor not only in the playoff push, but in actual playoff games.

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