We don’t know if James Neal, Ryan McLeod and Alex Chiasson will be together as a line when the Edmonton Oilers open the playoffs, but they looked good as a threesome again last night in a 4-3 OT win over the Montreal Canadiens. What they are now is an option for Dave Tippett – a good looking one at first glance.
It’s an interesting trio, to say the least. At 33, Neal, a 10-time 20-goal scorer, has been trying to round his game into shape after being laid low by COVID. You know what you’re getting with Neal when he’s up to speed. Likewise, with Chiasson, 30, a big up-and-down winger who gets to the net and knows what to do when he arrives. So-so feet. Nice hands. Neal and Chiasson have more than 1,400 NHL games and 393 goals combined.
In between the two veterans, there’s McLeod, a relative pup at 21 who tore it up down on the farm in AHL Bakersfield before getting the call up to Edmonton. McLeod has size at six-foot-two and 210 pounds, he can skate and even though he’s feeling his way into things with just nine NHL games in his resume, it’s obvious he can move the puck and make plays.
While they weren’t hell on wheels — Neal put the Oilers on the board at 1-1 last night with his fifth goal of the season on a feed from McLeod, who got his first NHL point, with Chiasson picking up the second assist – they have given Tippett something to think about in terms of finding some secondary scoring. You can never have too much of that, especially in the playoffs.
FINDING THE MIX
“Well, they’re an interesting line because Chiasson and Neal are both heavy guys and do a lot of rooting around the net and down low,” Tippett said. “McLeod is a good skater, transports the puck well through the neutral zone, so it’s kind of a mix of some skill. McLeod, even though he’s a young guy, he’s mature. He understands the game and plays a smart game all the time.
“So far, they’ve only played together a few games here, but they’ve looked pretty good . . . so far, so good. We’ll keep looking at them here. There’s something there. They played well tonight in a game where a team is playing a desperate game against you.”
If Neal, who scored 19 goals for the Oilers last season, can fully regain his form, it’ll be a big help on the wall, where they’re light on scoring. Likewise, Chiasson, who scored a career-high 22 goals for the Oilers in 2018-19 and has since dipped to 11 and eight for this season. McLeod, a second-round pick by the Oilers in 2018, is the wildcard. Might he be the spark that energizes them?
“Young players, they feel their way through the league,” Tippett said. “Space gets taken up a lot quicker up here. He’s finding his way. The thing I like is he plays a mature game. If he’s going to try to beat a guy in open ice, he’ll beat him. He knows when to get it by a guy when you have to. He’s solid positionally, so he’ll continue to grow his game. Experience is going to be great for him. These last games that he’s been in, he’s been solid. He hasn’t been in over his head at all. That’s a good sign moving forward.”
How long we see these three as a line, we don’t know, but if McLeod and Chiasson help Neal get rolling, it’ll pay dividends. Said Neal: “Right where I’m at, I could be a guy who comes in with secondary scoring, for sure. I’ve battled all year to be in this spot. I’ve played a lot of playoff hockey, won with different teams. I’m coming in with a lot of playoff experience. I’m going to chip in everywhere I can.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
At 34-18-2 for 70 points with two games remaining, including another with Montreal on Wednesday, the Oilers are locked into second place. Tippett has options, including the luxury of cutting back on ice time for Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse, if he chooses, in preparation for the post-season. Mike Smith, who’ll be the starter in the playoffs, didn’t even dress against the Habs last night.
Are Neal, McLeod and Chiasson a fit? Too soon to say, but Tippett has a couple more games to find out. A goal here and there in playoffs can give the attack a real kick in the pants while McDavid and Draisaitl are doing their thing at the top of the line-up. Show us what you got, fellas.