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Big Decisions: The Bottom Six

With hockey on the horizon and the season likely resuming in the next six to eight weeks, I’ve decided to start taking a closer look at the Oilers lineup and dissect some of the important decisions that Head Coach Dave Tippett will have to make when putting his lineup together. Earlier in the week, I looked into the Oiler’s top six and what I believed would be the best way for Tippett to deploy them when the team begins its play-in series against the Blackhawks.

Here’s what I came up with:

Tyler Ennis – Connor McDavid – Zack Kassian
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Leon Draisaitl – Kailer Yamamoto

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Hardly any hot takes in those picks but I believe that’s what the optimal combination for the Oilers. When it comes to the bottom six, there are definitely more areas to debate since the Oilers have as many as eight players that could potentially be in the lineup. Let’s start by looking at the third line.

There are two absolute locks on this line and they are Riley Sheahan and Josh Archibald. Those two spent 402 even-strength minutes together during the 19/20 season and while they weren’t overly productive, they held their own for a pair of third liners who started just 30% of their shifts in the offensive zone. 

They both didn’t get off to great starts this season (injuries are to blame), but as the year rolled on they started to become more and more effective. I believe a big reason for that is because they just kept getting more comfortable with each other. I don’t want this to sound harsh, but, Dave Tippett would be a fool if he split these two up.

As for who should be on the left side of this line, I actually think this decision is pretty easy as well.

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When the Oilers acquired Andreas Athanasiou at the trade deadline, many believed that his blazing speed would make him a perfect fit with Connor McDavid. It didn’t work out during his first few games with the team and while I think Athanasiou could definitely find himself playing in the Oilers top six on a permanent basis at some point over the next few years, I don’t think he deserves to be up there now.

However, his natural speed and offensive instincts might make him a good fit next to Sheahan and Archibald. I’m sure that Sheahan himself would admit that his skating is far from his best attribute, but by putting a pair of speedy wingers on his line, I think you quickly turn that third line into a trio that is fairly hard to play against. If they can go out, forecheck hard and outskate the opposition, that only makes life easier for the Oilers top six.

While Athanasiou might not have the best defensive IQ, the presence of Sheahan and Archibald keep this line from being any sort of defensive liability. In fact, I think this is a trio that Tippett could definitely trust starting in the defensive zone.

On the fourth line, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tippett opted to start by putting a pair of veteran wingers there. James Neal and Alex Chiasson might not have the speed to be full-time top-six wingers, but they’re still valuable pieces of the lineup and both are used on the teams only powerplay unit, so I believe that Tippett has to find a way to keep at least one of them in the lineup.

Chiasson and Neal spent 228 even-strength minutes together this past season and they actually had some solid numbers. Their CF%, SF%, and GF% were all well over 50% but it is worth noting that they started 63% of their shifts in the offensive zone. If Tippett is careful how he uses them, I think they’re a more than competent duo for the fourth line.

Down the middle, the decision comes down to Jujhar Khaira or Gaetan Haas. While I am a fan of Gaetan Haas and I want him into the lineup because I value his speed and think he has more offensive instincts than Khaira, there’s one element that he doesn’t bring, and that’s an ability to kill penalties.

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During the 19/20 season, the Oilers had just five forwards play more than 50 minutes on the penalty kill. They were Riley Sheahan (155 mins), Josh Archibald (141 mins), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (112 mins, Jujhar Khaira (100 mins), and Leon Draisaitl (69 mins). 

If Khaira isn’t in the lineup, that means both Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl have to be full-time penalty killers, which isn’t ideal from an ice-time management perspective. You’d rather have depth players killing your penalties so that once you’re back at even strength, you can roll your top six out there against the other team’s depth players (assuming their top players play heavy powerplay minutes, which is certainly the case on the Blackhawks).

So for that reason alone, I think you need to have Khaira in the lineup. I don’t expect he would play too much at 5v5, in fact, part of the reason I like having both Neal and Chiasson on the fourth line is that I feel like they can both play a few shifts with Connor McDavid if you’re down by a goal and Tippett wants to start double shifting his Captain. 

So for me, my bottom six for game one against Chicago would be:

Athanasiou – Sheahan – Archibald
Neal – Khaira – Chiasson

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I should add that I would be fully in favour of Tippett running some sort of rotation in his bottom six as well. If the Oilers want to go on a run, they’re going to have to play a lot of hockey in a short amount of time. Keeping players fresh will be very important. So I wouldn’t be surprised if both Nygard and Haas potentially get into multiple games during the series against the Hawks.

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Keeping players fresh and giving your bottom-six different looks throughout a series is a good idea and wouldn’t be surprised if we see that from Tippett.

Got a different take on the line combinations? Hit me up in the comments & tell me why I’m wrong!