If all goes according to plan, we’re a little over a month away from the puck dropping on the NHL’s 2021 season.
Save for a little bit of housework — like signing restricted free agents Ethan Bear and William Lagesson to new contracts — Ken Holland’s work for the off-season is mostly finished and we can set our eyes on early January.
That brings us to this week’s What Would You Do Wednesday SATURDAY EDITION question. What should Dave Tippett’s lineup look like come opening night? We’re obviously going to see a lot of changes throughout the year but what do the 2021 Edmonton Oilers’ optimal lines look like?
Tyler Ennis – Connor McDavid – Zack Kassian
One of the most difficult parts of projecting Edmonton’s lineup is deciding who’s going to play with Connor McDavid. He played alongside Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in the playoffs but, as I’ll explain next, you’d like to keep that elite second-line intact. I have McDavid playing with Zack Kassian, who was his most common linemate last season, along with Tyler Ennis, a speedy, skilled winger who isn’t a slouch in his own zone.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Leon Draisaitl – Kailer Yamamoto
This trio was arguably the best line in hockey last season. When Kailer Yamamoto got recalled in late December and this group was put together, it was a game-changer for a team that was struggling at the time. Nugent-Hopkins, Draisaitl, and Yamamoto played 317:37 together at even-strength and outscored their opponents by an absurd 28-to-8 margin. This is a line I wouldn’t split up.
Josh Archibald – Kyle Turris – Jesse Puljujarvi
Another big point of debate has been and will continue to be where Jesse Puljujarvi best fits in the lineup. The third line will obviously be anchored by Kyle Turris, which is a pretty major upgrade offensively over Riley Sheahan. Turris is a quality, veteran centre for Puljujarvi to start off with and having Archibald also on the line helps their two-way game.
James Neal – Jujhar Khaira – Alex Chiasson
I liked this fourth line in the playoffs. James Neal, Jujhar Khaira, and Alex Chiasson are all big bodies who can work the puck down low and make life difficult in the offensive zone. This is a trio that can come out and play physically and they could also chip in a bit offensively if played in a sheltered role.
Extra: Joakim Nygard, Gaetan Haas
Haas and Nygard are both no-brainers to crack the Oilers’ roster for me. Both provide the team with much-needed speed and both were effective in minor roles last season.
Darnell Nurse – Ethan Bear
With Oscar Klefbom out for the season, Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear are going to have to step up and be Edmonton’s top pair. This duo was excellent together last year and they’ll have to be even better this season to help compensate for the loss of Edmonton’s top defenceman.
Caleb Jones – Adam Larsson
Without Klefbom, it makes the most sense for Caleb Jones to slide up and play alongside Adam Larsson. Jones has stylistic similarities to Klefbom and has played with Larsson in the past. The two of them logged 150:55 together in 2019-20 and outscored opponents 8-to-5. Jones stepping up and having a big season would go a long way in helping the team navigate Klefbom’s injury.
Kris Russell – Tyson Barrie
The third pair consists of Kirs Russell and Tyson Barrie. While Barrie is here mostly to help on Edmonton’s power-play, he should be able to unlock some even-strength offence playing beside Russell, a defensively-responsible veteran. This is a pair that could be successful with sheltered minutes.
Extra: William Lagesson
William Lagesson, who’s having an excellent start to his season in Sweden, is the team’s extra defender. He isn’t a top prospect like Evan Bouchard or Philip Broberg so it makes more sense to have him in the press box than it does those other two.
Starter: Mikko Koskinen
Backup: Mike Smith
The same goaltending tandem from 2019-20 is back again. While Koskinen and Smith split the net 50/59 last year, I hope we see Koskinen get more of the load in 2020-21. It ultimately depends on what the schedule looks like, though. If the NHL tries to compress 70 games into a five-month stretch, there’ll be a lot of games on back-to-back nights, so giving Koskinen most of the load might not be realistic.
Finally, we have special teams. Losing Klefbom means the Oilers will have to make a change to their league-best power-play in 2021. The obvious play here would be inserting Tyson Barrie into Klefbom’s spot.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Connor McDavid – James Neal
Tyson Barrie – Leon Draisaitl
Save for swapping in Barrie for Klefbom, it’s pretty much the same unit as before. Neal is the front-of-net presence and Chiasson can fill in if he isn’t playing.
The second power-play unit is a bit more difficult to project because we don’t see it very often. It’s pretty much just taking the best of the rest.
Kailer Yamamoto – Kyle Turris – Jesse Puljujarvi
Darnell Nurse – Ethan Bear
I’d like to see Puljujarvi get a chance to play a similar role that Neal does on the top unit, using his big body and hands to be the second unit’s front-of-net presence.
What say you, Nation? How do you organize Edmonton’s lineup on opening night? Who plays with McDavid? Where does Puljujarvi best fit?