Last summer, after three months of waiting, the Oilers came into the NHL’s summer playoff tournament as a heavy favourite against the No. 12 seeded Chicago Blackhawks.
Dave Tippett made a few controversial lineup decisions, including the choice to start Mike Smith, who hadn’t been the team’s top goalie during the regular season, in Game 1, and breaking up the incredibly effective Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, and Yamamoto trio.
The Blackhawks went ahead and shocked the Oilers, taking the play-in series in four games.
Here we are now, 10 months later, and the Oilers are preparing to take on the Winnipeg Jets. This is a much different series than last year’s against Chicago. It isn’t coming after a long layoff, it isn’t in a quarantine bubble with 12 teams all staying in a couple of hotels together, and it’s being played against two teams that saw each other nine times this season.
But, beyond that, some questions from last summer remain the same this time around. What’s the ideal top line for the playoffs? Who should be on Connor McDavid’s left? How should the blueline be organized? Should the Oilers roll with youngsters or veterans?
That brings us to this week’s What Would You Do Wednesday TUESDAY EDITION question. How should Dave Tippett organize his lines in the series against the Jets? What do your forward trios and blueline duos look like?
Who Tippett decides to play on McDavid’s left will ultimately also determine what the second line looks like. We can safely assume that Jesse Puljujarvi will be on McDavid’s right and that there are three options to play on his left.
Nugent-Hopkins, McDavid, Puljujarvi: 258:36 even-strength minutes, 281-to-230 shot attempt differential, 13-to-14 goal differential
Draisaitl, McDavid, Puljujarvi: 176:57 even-strength minutes, 199-to-169 shot attempt differential, 17-to-12 goal differential
Kahun, McDavid, Puljujarvi: 66:58 even-strength minutes, 76-to-55 shot attempt differential, 5-to-4 goal differential
Unsurprisingly, the best line here is the one that features the Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl duo. When on the ice together this season, McDavid and Draisaitl have outscored opponents 45-to-22 at even strength. With Puljujarvi in the mix, the trio has a 17-to-12 goal differential.
That said, when Nugent-Hopkins is on his own, the second line is predictably being hung out to dry. In 205:00 even-strength minutes without McDavid or Draisaitl, he’s being outscored 7-to-5 and he’s being outshot 189-to-169. Another thing to note is that the Nugent-Hopkins and McDavid pair hasn’t been all that effective this season. When the two play together, they’re being outscored 14-to-13 at even strength.
With all that in mind, the play seems to be to roll with the Nugent-Hopkins, Draisaitl, Yamamoto trio that was so effective last season and go with Dominik Kahun on McDavid’s left. The Draisaitl and McDavid duo can be reunited in dire situations late in games or to give the team an occasional boost, but splitting them up is the ideal way to spread offence around the lineup.
There are a lot of players in the mix for bottom-six roles. The options at centre are rookie Ryan McLeod, Jujhar Khaira, Gaetan Haas, and Kyle Turris, while Alex Chiasson, James Neal, Josh Archibald, Devin Shore, Joakim Nygard, Tyler Ennis, and Patrick Russell are options on the wings. Zack Kassian’s status remains unknown.
Despite the handful of players in the mix, putting together the bottom-six doesn’t appear to be too difficult.
The big man trio of Jujhar Khaira, James Neal, and Alex Chiasson has been effective in the past. They can forecheck, slam bodies, and potentially provide offence. The addition of Ryan McLeod gives the Oilers a speedy pivot superior to Gaetan Haas to play with any of Ennis, Archibald, or Shore. Ennis provides more depth offensively but Archibald and Shore are better penalty killers.
The one question is what happens if Kassian is healthy. It’s unlikely he’ll find a top-six gig as Puljujarvi has taken his role alongside McDavid but Kassian could still bring something to the table playing in the bottom-six.
I would like to see Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear back together as the two made a calm, excellent pairing but I also don’t see Tippett breaking up the success of Nurse and Tyson Barrie. The Nurse and Barrie duo outscored opponents 49-to-35 this year over the course of 731:48 even-strength minutes and are easily Edmonton’s best pair offensively.
The Nurse and Bear pairing had better underlying numbers than the Nurse and Barrie pairing largely because they gave up a lot less on the defensive end of the ice. The challenge here is that it would leave Barrie playing with a different partner and he didn’t perform well with anybody other than Nurse.
One way to potentially break things up and spread offence and defence around the pairings would be to split Dmitry Kulikov and Adam Larsson. That would allow Barrie to play with a legit shutdown guy in Kulikov and would also reunite a solid pair in Jones and Larsson.
Speaking of Jones, the young defender was in and out of the lineup all season, ultimately playing in 33 games. Kris Russell is injured and likely won’t be ready for Wednesday and Slater Koekkoek appeared in just one game after missing multiple months with a broken collarbone. We know that Tippett likes to lean towards veterans, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Koekkoek draw in for Game 1.
Putting it all together…
Assuming that Russell and Kassian aren’t ready to go, here’s what I suspect Tippett will go with for Game 1…
Kahun – McDavid – Puljujarvi
Nugent-Hopkins – Draisaitl – Yamamoto
Neal – Khaira – Chiasson
Shore – McLeod – Archibald
Nurse – Barrie
Kulikov – Larsson
Koekkoek – Bear
If Kahun doesn’t hack it with McDavid, we could see Tippett opt to insert Ennis into the lineup later in the series. The same goes for Koekkoek. If he struggles and Russell remains unavailable, we would likely see Jones draw in.
What say you, Nation? How do you see Tippett putting together the lineup for Game 1? How would you do them if it were up to you?