Earlier today the NHL and NHLPA released a detailed report on Phase 2 Return to Play protocol. It focuses on small group workouts.
“Based on the current information available, we are now targeting a date in early June for a transition to Phase 2,” the memo said. There will be a maximum of six players at the facility at one time, and no coaching involvement for on-ice work. Essentially it is like a normal off-season where coaches aren’t allowed on the ice with players.
It is interesting to note one line in the memo: “Players from other clubs who are residing in the area can have access to the facilities.” So any Edmonton-based players who play for other NHL teams could remain here and start training right away, rather than travel to the city of their home team. This makes a lot of sense.
The memo did not mention a date for phase 3 (training camps) or phase 4 (games). You can read complete memo here.
PROJECTING A RETURN…
Today brought some positive news for fans yearning for the return of the NHL. I sense Oilersnation can’t wait, and regardless if we like or dislike the current 24-team proposal, playoff hockey is better than no playoff hockey in my eyes. I prefer the NHL go with a playoff format where the top-five in each division make it and then two wildcards berths (for each conference), as it is a closer facsimile of what the normal format looks like. But I digress.
The playoff format isn’t the point of today’s article. Instead let’s look ahead to what the Oilers will look like when they return.
Who will Dave Tippett dress, and which line combinations will he run?
This is the lineup I think Tippett will start game one of a playoff series. The Oilers have depth and lots of options, so I’m sure we could see changes as the playoffs progress, but this is simply a focus on game one.
I think eight spots are fairly obvious, based for a few reasons. I base this on the assumption all the players are healthy and in good shape when the playoffs begin.
??-Connor McDavid-Zack Kassian
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins-Leon Draisaitl-Kailer Yamamoto
??-Riley Sheahan-Josh Archibald
?? -Jujhar Khaira-??
Kassian has played the most with McDavid the past 17 months, and with a short training camp, and possibly no pre-playoff games, Tippett will have Kassian with McDavid.
The Draisaitl trio was excellent since the moment they were put together. I see no reason not to start them together.
Sheahan and Archibald are the reliable duo for Tippett.
Khaira, albeit in a small sample size, was very engaged playing centre prior to the stoppage, and he is one of the Oilers top-four penalty killers. I don’t envision Tippett not having him in the lineup for game one.
Which leaves us with four wing positions.
James Neal will dress. Guaranteed. This is the playoffs. He has the most playoff experience of any Oilers player. He’s played in two of the past three Stanley Cup Finals. While some will focus on his 5×5 scoring struggles, Tippett will focus on his experience, and how he won’t be playing with a broken toe. Neal is also vocal, and in an unprecedented playoffs, having an experienced voice in the room and on the bench is very important. He scored 19 goals in 55 games this season. Overall, solid production.
In his nine games with the Oilers, Tyler Ennis played 68 minutes with McDavid and 37 with Draisaitl. Tippett used him in an offensive role and his 16 goals this season are fifth most on the Oilers. He is a smart, skilled player. He and Neal are the most likely candidates to start beside McDavid.
Alex Chiasson. He is the most obvious, and likely, candidate to start alongside Khaira. Chiasson’s most common linemate this season was Gaetan Haas (257 minutes) and with Khaira replacing him as the fourth line centre, it makes sense to have Chiasson there. He is a big body, who makes good plays along the boards and won’t get pushed around when the physical play of the playoffs intensifies. He is also a very good net-front-presence on the powerplay.
Andreas Athanasiou. He might benefit the most from the suspended season. He scored 1-1-2 in his first game with the Oilers, but was pointless in his next eight. He had 10 goals in 46 games with Detroit prior to the trade after scoring 30 last season. I don’t think he is a regular 30-goal scorer, but he is capable of being a solid 18-20 goal scorer. He clearly lost his confidence this season, and we’ve seen many players have a season where they can’t find their mojo. He likely will come back to camp excited and feeling like this is a new season. I see him starting with Sheahan and Archibald, but he has the speed and skill to move up the lineup.
Joakim Nygard. He hasn’t played since January 29th. He will be healthy, but I’d be surprised Tippett starts a rookie in game one of the playoffs after not playing a game in six months (assuming August 1st playoffs begin). He is a good option coming out of the press box with his speed and tenacity on the forecheck.
Gaetan Haas. His speed and creativity are intriguing, but he wasn’t used on the PK much, and so unless Khaira really struggles at 5×5, I don’t see where Haas fits in to start.
So my best guess for forwards on opening night of the playoffs is as follows:
Chiasson and Neal have been each other’s second most common linemate all season, so they have experience, familiarity and scoring ability.
Edmonton will have eight NHL calibre defenceman. A luxury at the start of the playoffs, and if they go on a deep run they will need all of them.
Four D-men will for sure be in the lineup: Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, Adam Larsson and Ethan Bear.
You almost forget Mike Green plays for the Oilers, because he only played two games before injuring his knee. However, he played just under 20 minutes in his second game, which shows you how much Tippett and Jim Playfair like him. He skates well and is an excellent puck mover. He will be the third right-shot defender. He played more minutes/game in his short stint with the Oilers than Matt Benning.
Kris Russell averaged 2:02/game on the PK, second-most among blueliners behind Klefbom. Russell and Caleb Jones each averaged 14 minutes/game at EV, but the difference was Russell’s PK time. In a short series, game one is even more important than usual, and I expect the coaches to go with a veteran and one of their most-used penalty killers.
I see the game one D pairings as:
I found this was the toughest decision. These two were evenly split much of the season. Mike Smith started 37 games while Mikko Koskinen started 34. They played 2,156 and 2,116 minutes respectively.
Since February 1st their numbers are very interesting.
Smith started 12 games and was 7-3-2 with a 2.93 GAA and a .905Sv%.
Koskinen started eight games and was 3-4-1 with a 2.40 GAA and .934Sv%.
Smith won more games, but Koskinen had better numbers. The Oilers scored 45 goals in Smith’s 12 starts and 18 in Koskinen’s eight.
Smith’s fiery demeanor engages his teammates, and that combined with his experience is why I think Tippett might lean to him in game one.
However, Tippett has openly talked about the opponent’s forecheck and how he likes to play Smith against teams with aggressive forechecks who also chip and chase. The Chicago Blackhawks aren’t that team, so Tippett might opt for Koskinen.
How they handle this odd layoff will factor into Tippett’s and goaltending coach Dustin Schwartz’s decision as well.
I think both goalies will play during the playoffs, but I see Smith starting game one.
It feels good to discuss matchups and player deployment again.
Which players would you dress and with line combinations/D pairs would you run?
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