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WWYDW: Roster Battles Among Forwards

We’re only one week away from puck drop.

This year’s training camp, like the season in general, is going to be very interesting. Unlike in every other year, there won’t be any exhibition games ahead of the regular season, so Dave Tippett and Co. will have an interesting challenge putting together the puzzle that is the Oilers’ lineup for opening night.

This is a group that saw quite a bit of turnover from last season, especially up front. The Oilers added two new faces, Kyle Turris and Dominik Kahun, and brought back Jesse Puljujarvi and trade deadline acquisition Tyler Ennis, who are essentially new faces for Tippett and the staff. They also have a handful of players on either two-way deals or professional tryouts who are vying for NHL gigs.

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That brings us to this week’s What Would You Do Wednesday (ACTUALLY ON A WEDNESDAY EDITION) question. If you were coach Tippett, what would your forward lines look like on opening night next week? Let’s walk through some interesting roster and lineup battles going on in camp…

Who plays with McDavid?

Here’s a good place to start. I think we can safely assume that the McDrai combination won’t be a thing this year. As great as Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are together, the team is much, much deeper when they’re both driving their own lines.

Last season, Draisaitl formed one of the best lines in hockey with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto on his wings, but that left McDavid pretty much on his own. Given the acquisition of Draisaitl’s childhood teammate, Dominik Kahun, we can safely assume the plan is for Nugent-Hopkins to play alongside McDavid.

So, assuming Kahun, Draisaitl, and Yamamoto are a line, who joins McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins?

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Zack Kassian has been a nice fit on McDavid’s right in the past. He plays a responsible defensive game, forechecks effectively, drives the net, and can score goals. It’s also nice to have some protection on the ice with the captain.

But there’s also Jesse Puljujarvi, who’s coming back for his second go-around with the club after spending a season-and-a-bit in Finland. McDavid and Puljujarvi have put up very good results when playing together in the past, and there’s merit to the argument that playing with a great centre would give the former No. 4 overall pick a real chance to shine.

I think it’s most likely Tippett goes with the veteran Kassian here.

What does the bottom-six look like? 

Whoever isn’t on McDavid’s right will be playing on the team’s third line alongside veteran pivot Kyle Turris.

Edmonton’s third line will be different than in previous years. Rather than operating with a top-six and a bottom-six, the Turris-centered third line will be more offensively oriented, so putting Puljujarvi here wouldn’t be burying him in an uncomfortable role.

How about the left side? Tyler Ennis seems like the logical candidate, given he plays a solid two-way game and brings tenacity, speed, and skill to the offensive zone. But there’s also James Neal, a proven scoring threat, and Joakim Nygard, a winger who boasts tremendous speed, and Tyler Benson, one of the organization’s top prospects in the mix. Josh Archibald could also be a possibility on his off-wing, too.

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If we roll with an Ennis, Turris, and Puljujarvi third line, which seems optimal for producing offence, that leaves us with a lot of guys pushing for gigs on the fourth line. James Neal, Alex Chiasson, Jujhar Khaira, Gaetan Haas, Joakim Nygard, and Patrick Russell are all in the mix, along with other wild card names like Devin Shore, a veteran who’s on a PTO, and prospect Ryan McLeod.

In the playoffs, the team rolled with Neal, Khaira, and Chiasson as their fourth trio, a group of big bodies who could forecheck hard but didn’t boast much speed. Going with that trio again would leave out Archibald, which isn’t ideal given the fact he’s one of Edmonton’s most important penalty killers. While Neal, Khaira, and Chiasson’s contracts would suggest they shouldn’t be in the press-box, their playing time isn’t guaranteed.

Putting it all together…

One of the biggest differences from the Oilers of the past to the Ken Holland Oilers is the volume of legitimate NHL depth the team now has. Rather than scrambling to flesh out a lineup with players who aren’t good enough for the league or prospects who aren’t ready, there are a wealth of names internally competing for jobs.

That’s a good problem to have. And, honestly, it’s a shame we don’t have a slate of pre-season games to watch these roster battles shake out.

As I said off the hop, this is going to be a weird season. There are inevitably going to be injuries and positive COVID tests are also going to be a reality that results in players not being able to play. Another thing to consider is the volume of games being played in a short period of time and the importance of giving players rest.

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The lineup we see on opening night obviously won’t be the one we see every single game, but, nonetheless, here’s how I figure Tippett will deploy his forward lines next week…

Nugent-Hopkins – McDavid – Kassian

Kahun – Draisaitl – Yamamoto

Ennis – Turris – Puljujarvi

Neal – Haas – Archibald

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What say you, Nation? How do you see the forward lines shaking out? Will we see any surprises in camp, such as a prospect like Benson or McLeod earning a spot or a PTO guy like Shore getting a deal? Let us know in the comments! 

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