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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Big Decisions: The Top Six

Once play gets resuming, Dave Tippett will have some interesting choices to make when it comes to his lineup. Both upfront, on the backend, and between the pipes, there are plenty of intriguing decisions to be made. So, over the next couple of weeks here on the site, I’ll be taking a close look at each part of the Oilers lineup and discussing the best possible combinations that Tippett could ice for the teams play-in round series vs Chicago.

This week, I’m starting with the forward group. Specifically, the top six. There are plenty of combinations that were successful for the team throughout the 2019/20 regular season, so what is the best way for Tippett to deplore his top-six group in the play-in round? Here’s my take:

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THE TOP LINE

February 25, 2020; Anaheim, California, USA; Edmonton Oilers left wing Andreas Athanasiou (28) celebrates his goal scored against the Anaheim Ducks with defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) center Tyler Ennis (63) and center Connor McDavid (97) during the third period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

We could also title this portion of the article “who should play with Connor McDavid?” and it’s without a doubt one of the most important questions for Dave Tippett to get right. As much as fans and media (myself included) will dissect who the 12th forward is and who gets healthy scratched, the bottom line is that outside of who starts in net, there might not be a more important decision than who surrounds #97 on the top line.

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During the regular season, no one played more even-strength minutes with McDavid than Zack Kassian, who played a total of 677 minutes. Their possession numbers were not great but they outscored the opposition when they were on the ice together. They’re clearly comfortable playing with each other and that’s something I would value if I was the coach. Also, and you can call me old school for this but I don’t care, I value Kassian’s physical game and think his presence on the ice will help McDavid during a playoff series.

On the left side, the conversation is a little bit different. At even strength, McDavid spent time the most time with James Neal (237 minutes) but also saw a decent amount of time with Josh Archibald (150 minutes), Alex Chiasson ( 92 minutes), and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (85 minutes).

Of those four, Neal had the best CF%, SCF%, and HDCF% but the worst GF%. In over 230 minutes with McDavid, Neal only found the back of the net three times, which concerns me. If you’re going to play with the best playmaker in the league, you need to score, and Neal did not.

I could see the case for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to play with McDavid, but I think I like him more on the second line, which I’ll get to in a second. Alex Chiasson played with McDavid a bit, but I don’t think he has the boots to keep up in a top-six role. As for Archibald, I think the best spot for him is on the third line where he seemed to find some chemistry with Riley Sheahan.

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The best fit to start on Connor McDavid’s wing is none of the four players that played the most with him during the regular season. It’s Tyler Ennis. Even though his numbers were not great in his first few games on the top line, I’d like to see Tippett give him a chance up there just because of the style of game he plays.

With Kassian on one wing and Ennis on the other, I think it would give that line two hard forecheckers who both have decent scoring touch. In his short time with the Oilers, I was impressed with Ennis’ ability to retrieve pucks and force turnovers which are two things that I believe are very important if you’re going to play with McDavid. He skates well and knows how to find McDavid on the rush, which is also important. Small passes in the neutral zone that allow McDavid to fly into the offensive end with the puck are a good way to generate offence and during their brief time together, I got the sense that Ennis knew how to do that. 

Give the puck to #97 and go to the net. It’s a simple recipe, but it works. I think Ennis and Kassian can both compliment McDavid very well.

THE SECOND LINE

This decision is easy for me. The Oilers played their best hockey of the season when Kailer Yamamoto was recalled and placed next to Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. That trio was wildly productive and even though Dave Tippett split them up before the season was paused, I think he should absolutely throw them back together for the play-in series vs Chicago.

Both Yamamoto and Nugent-Hopkins saw their even-strength possession numbers shoot up when they were put with Draisaitl compared to when they were on the ice without him. In 328 even-strength minutes together, that trio outscored the opposition 30-9. That’s a GF% of 76.9%. When Nugent-Hopkins was away from those two, his GF dropped to 43.7%. Yamamoto only spent 16 minutes away from both Draisaitl & Nugent-Hopkins this season, so his GF% of 50% doesn’t count for much. For Draisaitl, his GF% without those two linemates was just 34.9%.

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It’s clear that those three are productive and work best when they are together. In a short series, you don’t want to risk getting off to a slow start, so this should be a no-brainer for Dave Tippett. Keeping those three together gives them the best chance to beat the Blackhawks.

Honestly, aside from who plays on the left side next to McDavid, there isn’t too much to debate when it comes to the top six in my opinion. But things get a little bit more interesting when you start looking at the bottom six. I’ll be looking into that in a few days!