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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Building a Better Bottom Six

The recent success Leon Draisaitl’s had with Kailer Yamamoto and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins gives the Oilers a one-two punch they haven’t had in McDavid’s career before (though, that trio won’t be together tonight). Ken Holland added wingers Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Ennis at the trade deadline. Can the Edmonton Oilers create a scary group of forwards as they approach the playoffs?

The Oilers have had some combination of Connor McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins as their top-two centers. Looking at the Oilers five-on-five without those three players on the ice should tell us how their bottom six is performing.

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McDavid’s results without Draisaitl or Nugent-Hopkins are solid. McDavid will tilt the ice in the Oilers’ favour with just about anyone. Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins have formed a dangerous second line with Yamamoto. Together that line gets a nice 69-percent of the goals scored five-on-five.

Riley Sheahan’s played so little with any of McDavid, Draisatl or Nugent-Hopkins. He serves as a proxy for the third line. Same goes for Gaetan Haas and the fourth line.

It’s easier to see why there was talk about the Oilers searching for a third-line center around the trade deadline. Sheahan’s better served as a fourth-line pivot at this point in his career. According to PuckIQ, Sheahan’s spends about 30-percent of his five-on-five time against ‘Elite’ competition. That’s probably more than your average third-line guy, but the Oilers are getting crushed in those minutes so tough competition doesn’t absolve the Sheahan line.

Haas’ results are better. But if the Oilers want to succeed in the playoffs, they’ll need their bottom-six forwards to contribute and not give away what the top lines create. Before, it was the bottom nine giving away everything McDavid and Drasiaitl created, so there’s progress with two strong lines emerging.

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The additions of Ennis and Athanasiou will help. Either by placing them in the bottom-six directly or them displacing lesser players that would have played with either McDavid or Drasiaitl on the Oilers’ top two lines.

The third-line center is still a weak spot. Sheahan plays there out of necessity. The Oilers don’t have another center to try in that spot. Nugent-Hopkins needs to play in the top six. Athanasiou’s played some center, but is more of a winger. Maybe Cooper Marody could get another look, but he’s taken a step back offensively in Bakersfield this year in an injury-filled campaign. Joakim Nygard will push someone out of the lineup when he returns from injury. A player like JUJHAR KHAIRA might be a scratch.

Building a capable fourth line is well within the Oilers’ capabilities right now. The third line is the bigger question mark going into the playoffs. It will likely remain a weak spot, with an upgrade coming in the summer instead. Kassian is an option, but Todd McLellan and Ken Hitchcock played him on the fourth line if he wasn’t with McDavid.

Improving the third and fourth lines should be possible in the offseason. Sheahan can assume a more suitable role on the fourth line.

Free agency won’t have a ton of centers, but acquiring one via trade is achievable. The Oilers might have two defencemen making $4-million a season they could trade for a center making similar money. Nashville’s Nick Bonino has a $4.1-million cap hit with another year on his contract. Toronto’s Alex Kerfoot makes $3.5 million and the Maple Leafs need capable defencemen. Otherwise, you’re looking at players like Carl Soderberg, Cody Eakin and Derick Brassard in free agency or hoping Marody or Ryan McLeod take another step in their development.

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Edmonton’s weakness in the bottom six is third-line center and that weakness won’t be addressed until the offseason at the earliest. Separating Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins and Yamamoto is sacrilege. McDavid can carry lesser players, but the third line leaves a vulnerable spot that teams in the playoffs might exploit.

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