How can the Oilers improve their bottom-six and depth scoring?

Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
1 month ago
With less than two weeks until the NHL Trade Deadline, improving the forward depth seems quite high on Edmonton’s to-do list.
When Kris Knoblauch initially arrived in Edmonton, he stressed the importance of keeping lines together to establish chemistry. However, Edmonton’s line combinations have been shuffled around quite frequently over the past couple of weeks. 
The Oilers are still searching for the right linemates to play with Leon Draisaitl on the second line, while the depth scoring from the bottom six at 5-on-5 has completely dried up since the beginning of 2024.
Limiting goals should undoubtedly be a point of emphasis for this Edmonton team, which is why they should look to acquire an upgrade at right-defence, but improving the forward depth could go a long way. The 2023 Vegas Golden Knights demonstrated the importance of consistent depth scoring from all four lines in the playoffs.
So, how has Edmonton’s bottom-six performed this season, and how could they improve? Here’s a closer look.
*All on-ice stats via EvolvingHockey and Natural Stat Trick unless mentioned otherwise

How has Edmonton’s bottom six performed this season?

Here is a glance at Edmonton’s 5v5 goal differential throughout the past three seasons.
For most of the McDavid and Draisaitl era, Edmonton’s bottom-six was abysmal, consistently getting out-scored and giving back what Edmonton’s stars created. However, it took a significant turn following the hiring of Jay Woodcroft. In 2022-23, Woodcroft’s first (and only) full season as Oilers coach, Edmonton out-scored opponents 74 to 60 without their two superstars, equating to a 55 percent goal share, the highest in the McDavid/Draisaitl era by a substantial margin.
A significant reason for that was improved finishing from their depth players, most notably Klim Kostin, who scored at an excellent rate of 1.2 goals per hour at 5v5 and was a crucial part of their success. 
Of course, Kostin was on a highly unsustainable shooting percent heater, and his play has predictably regressed this season on the Detroit Red Wings, which is why it was a smart decision by Ken Holland not to overpay him. But regardless, it must be mentioned that Kostin’s finishing was a big reason for the team’s improved depth scoring. Edmonton doesn’t necessarily miss Kostin, but they miss the level of play he provided last season.
This season, the entire team, including both the top six and the bottom six, had an awful start to the year, eventually resulting in the firing of Woodcroft. Under Kris Knoblauch, Edmonton has an exact net-even goal share without McDavid and Draisaitl.
Edmonton’s depth players certainly have not been a liability this season, but a team with cup aspirations should always look for ways to maximize the potential of their roster. A deep bottom-six that could consistently out-score opponents could go a long way in the playoffs.
To their credit, Edmonton’s bottom-six has been excellent defensively. However, the offence has completely dried up. 
In the calendar year of 2024, Edmonton has scored at a measly rate of 0.97 goals per hour at 5v5 without their two stars. To put that into perspective, the Oilers average roughly 22 minutes per game without McDavid and Draisaitl at 5v5, meaning a scoring rate of 0.97 would equate to a mere ~29 combined goals over 82 games, paling in comparison to the 74 goals they scored last season.
Overall, their total scoring rate under Knoblauch is 1.6. For comparison, in 2017-18, Peter Chiarelli and Todd McLellan’s final full season in Edmonton, the bottom six scored at a rate of 1.55, which is not much lower (also note that the league scoring rate was considerably lower in 17-18 in comparison to 23-24).
In 2022-23, Kostin, Ryan, and Janmark combined for 27 goals at 5v5 over 82 games. The bottom-six scored at a rate of 2.42.
This season, Ryan and Janmark have combined for just six goals at 5v5 in 54 games, a pace of less than 10 5v5 goals combined over 82 games, while no player in the bottom six is currently scoring at the rate Kostin did. 
With everything in mind, the bottom six could desperately use someone with scoring or finishing talent. Under Knoblauch, they have generated 168 high-danger chances and 31.7 expected goals, but just 23 actual goals. 
Edmonton has plenty of players who can drive possession and scoring chances, but not nearly enough who can put the puck in the net.

So, how could they improve the bottom six?

Internal Options:

      1. Play Evander Kane on the third line
For several reasons, deploying Kane on the third line could be wise.
Firstly, Kane is not a great fit in the top six, notably on Leon Draisaitl’s wing. While Kane is strong at scoring goals, his lack of play-making and brutal defensive play severely weigh him down. 
Away from McDavid, Draisaitl and Kane possess a net-even 50 percent goal differential on the second line, alongside a 52 percent expected goal differential. Away from Kane, Draisaitl holds an excellent 62 percent goal share and 61 percent expected goal share, as the second line generates more goals and allows less without Kane on it.
On the other hand, Kane and McLeod have solid results together in a limited sample. Away from Draisaitl, Kane and McLeod hold a 57 percent expected goal share in 167 minutes from 2021-22. Stylistically, they could fit well together, as Kane could benefit from McLeod’s speed and defensive acumen (no Oilers forward has been on-ice for fewer 5v5 goals per hour in the past two seasons than McLeod), while McLeod could desperately use a player with scoring talent on his wing.
If the Oilers want to spread out their line-up and scoring, Kris Knoblauch should strongly consider exploring the idea of deploying Kane on the third line, perhaps with McLeod.
      2. Recall James Hamblin
Dec 14, 2023; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward James Hamblin (57) chases a loose puck against there Tampa Bay Lightning at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
James Hamblin has played 31 games with Edmonton this season as the fourth-line center. He was eventually sent down to Bakersfield to make room to activate Dylan Holloway off LTIR, but Edmonton should consider recalling him again.
In his time with the Oilers this season, Hamblin was reasonably solid as the 4C, at least without Connor Brown on his wing. Away from Brown, Hamblin centred a reliable fourth line that out-scored opponents 8 to 4 and out-chanced opponents 32 to 21 in terms of high-danger chances. 
On the downside, Hamblin is currently out with an injury, but he is an option Edmonton could consider later in the season. At the moment, Edmonton’s bottom six, most notably the fourth line, is not particularly a fast squad; Hamblin provides elements of speed and effective forechecking that Edmonton’s depth could certainly benefit from.
      3. Give Raphael Lavoie an extended opportunity
If there is an internal option with a possibility of at least nearing close to replicating what Kostin brought to the Oilers in 2022-23, it is Raphael Lavoie.
As he currently leads the Bakersfield Condors in even-strength and total goals in the past two seasons, Lavoie has genuine scoring potential. There is a plausible argument Lavoie possesses a better shot than any of Edmonton’s current bottom-six.
Of course, the primary knock against Lavoie throughout his career has been his skating, and there is certainly no guarantee his AHL scoring success can be replicated in the NHL. But, at this stage, there is no simply point in continuously playing Mattias Janmark and Connor Brown regularly and expecting consistent depth scoring.
Lavoie played just 7 NHL games this season, averaging a mere 7 minutes per game. Perhaps giving him a proper, extended opportunity alongside a playmaker such as Ryan McLeod or Dylan Holloway could at least be worth a shot.

External Options:

      1. Acquire a high-end top-six winger, push players down the line-up
At the moment, it seems that Edmonton’s top priority at the trade deadline is to acquire a top-six winger. Last week, I wrote all about potential wingers Edmonton could target to play in the top-six.
One way to improve the bottom-six is simply pushing players down the line-up. By acquiring a high-end winger such as Jake Guentzel or Pavel Buchnevich, a player currently playing in the top six would automatically move down to the third line, resulting in a much deeper squad.
This option makes it easier to move Kane to the third line. Here’s what a potential line-up could look like:
Of course, there are multiple options for the fourth line, but you get the point. This would be a very well-rounded forward core.
      2. Acquire a third-line centre, and play Ryan McLeod on the second-line full-time
Ryan McLeod has shown chemistry with Draisaitl in a limited sample. In 119 minutes together this season at 5v5, the two have out-scored opponents 12 to 4, a perfect 3:1 ratio, alongside a 58 percent expected goal differential.
It makes sense why the two fit well together. Draisaitl has a history of working well with speed on his wings, and McLeod’s excellent defensive play is an added benefit. McLeod obviously benefits from Draisaitl’s finishing and offensive capabilities, and it helps McLeod in the sense that his responsibilities are lessened while playing on the wing. He does not have to be the primary puck-mover on his line, allowing him more opportunity to be an excellent complementary piece.
The trio of McLeod, Draisaitl, and Foegele had fantastic results together. Still, they were eventually split up, and a major factor was that deploying McLeod in the top six weakened Edmonton’s bottom six. Derek Ryan is not an NHL 3C, while Dylan Holloway does not have significant experience at center.
Trading for an established 3C would allow Edmonton to keep McLeod with Draisaitl full-time. Preferably, this 3C could be utilized as part of a shutdown line and/or can consistently chip in offensively. Some potential 3C trade candidates include Adam Henrique, Thomas Novak, and Morgan Frost. Nic Dowd is also a useful player, although if the report that his acquisition price is a first-round pick is true, I would not make that deal.
Here’s how a potential line-up could look if Edmonton acquired a 3C:
It may not be as enticing as acquiring a top-six winger, but it leaves assets and cap space to improve the defence. It’s certainly an option to consider.
      3. Acquire a fourth-line center
It can be argued that Edmonton does not have an adequate NHL 4C at the moment. 
Derek Ryan has been a handy player throughout his tenure in Edmonton, but unfortunately, age catches up to every player. Recently turning 37 in December, Ryan ranks last on the Oilers with a 45 percent expected goal differential since the beginning of January, being on-ice for just one goal at 5v5 in those minutes (and four against, equating to a brutal 16 percent GF%). Ryan has much better results on the wing, which is why there is still a solid argument to keep him in the line-up, but he may not be a suitable option at 4C in the playoffs.
While I did mention that recalling Hamblin could be a good idea, he’s not exactly an established NHL option, either.
An effective and proven option to play at 4C, preferably one that can also kill penalties, could have a considerable impact on Edmonton’s bottom six. Yakov Trenin and Jake Evans are some potential trade targets.
      4. Acquire a cheaper middle-six winger and save assets for other needs
With Edmonton’s limited cap space and trade assets, addressing every area of need is extremely difficult. This is the primary argument against trading for a top-six winger, as it would require a hefty trade package to acquire someone like Guentzel or Buchnevich, limiting Edmonton’s ability to address another important area such as their defence.
Of course, it is still possible to make additional upgrades if management gets creative, but realistically, I am not sure if they can/will. Consequently, one alternative could be to trade for a less pricey middle-six option and save money and assets to still possess the ability to upgrade at 4C and RD. 
Some potential options include Anthony Duclair and Casey Mittelstadt. These players may not be as enticing as a guy like Guentzel, but they still possess the potential to work well on a second line with Draisaitl, and the team could still likely have assets to acquire a 4C and a 2RD. 
Personally, I would still attempt to target one of the high-end forwards first, but it is an option worth mentioning.

Final Thoughts

In the 2023 playoffs, the Golden Knights deployed six different line combinations that played at least 40 minutes together, each of them possessing a goal differential higher than 55 percent. 
Vegas’ top three goal-scorers were Jonathan Marchessault, Mark Stone, and William Karlsson; each of them spent the majority of their time on three separate lines. Meanwhile, their fourth-line of Nicolas Roy, Keegan Kolesar, and William Carrier out-scored opponents 5 to 4, alongside a 55 percent expected goal differential.
For comparison, in every season in which the Oilers made the playoffs in the McDavid/Draisaitl era, the team has been out-scored at 5v5 without those two on-ice.
Depth scoring is crucial in the playoffs. It will be incredibly difficult for the Oilers to win a Stanley Cup without an effective third and fourth line. Edmonton’s bottom-six has undoubtedly taken steps forward in the past two seasons, notably defensively, but there is still considerable room for improvement, especially on the offensive side.
There are a variety of different ways in which Edmonton could improve their depth scoring. Let’s wait and see how Ken Holland and Jeff Jackson ultimately decide to approach this trade deadline.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)


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