How successful can the Oilers’ current second line be?

Photo credit:© Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
5 months ago
If the success of their current second line can continue, there is an extremely compelling case that the Edmonton Oilers possess the best top-six in the NHL.
Currently, there is no line superior to Edmonton’s top line of Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Zach Hyman. That trio has out-scored opponents at a ratio of 20 to 8, while also possessing an excellent 72 percent expected goal differential, which ranks first among all forward lines with a minimum of 100 5v5 minutes played together.
Kris Knoblauch has stressed the importance of keeping lines consistent for players to generate chemistry. Ever since Edmonton’s 5-0 victory over the Washington Capitals on November 24, the beginning of an eight-game winning streak, McDavid, RNH, and Hyman have spent the vast majority of their time on ice together as Edmonton’s first line, and they have been fantastic. 
However, the same cannot be said for Edmonton’s second line. Knoblauch deployed Evander Kane and Connor Brown on Leon Draisaitl’s wing for the first seven games of Edmonton’s eight-game winning streak, but that line was far from successful. They scored just a single 5v5 goal, while they were crushed in terms of scoring chances, possessing an inadequate 41 percent scoring chance differential while the rest of the team operated above 60 percent. In subsequent games, Knoblauch shuffled around the middle-six in an attempt to find a competent second line.
Eventually, the team struck gold. Midway through their victory against the New Jersey Devils on December 21st, Knoblauch deployed Ryan McLeod and Warren Foegele on Draisaitl’s wing. The Oilers would win that game 6-3, with four of their goals coming in the third period, and two of those goals belonged to this line, including Draisaitl’s ultimate GWG at 5v5.
Ever since, Edmonton’s brand-new second line has out-scored opponents 9 to 3 at 5v5 while additionally holding an excellent 65 percent scoring chance differential. Of course, it must be mentioned that this trio has yet to even play 60 minutes together, but the early results are fantastic.
As mentioned previously, Edmonton’s top line has been dominant at 5v5. Additionally, ever since Knoblauch’s arrival, the team’s bottom six has out-scored opponents 15 to 11 at 5v5. If Edmonton can have a consistently strong second line, it would be nearly impossible to contain Edmonton’s offence.
So, can McLeod and Foegele be capable second-line wingers for Draisaitl? Can this trio’s early results sustain throughout a larger sample? Here’s a closer look.
*All stats via Natural Stat Trick and EvolvingHockey unless stated otherwise

How much chemistry does Draisaitl have with Foegele and McLeod?

Throughout his tenure with the Edmonton Oilers, Warren Foegele has had chemistry with Draisaitl ever since he arrived in Edmonton.
In 450 minutes played together in the past three seasons, the team has out-scored opponents 31 to 24 at 5v5 with Draisaitl and Foegele on-ice. Both players see an increase in their goal and expected goal differential when they play alongside each other. It is evident the two players have solid chemistry together.
As for McLeod, he has spent the vast majority of his time as Edmonton’s third-line center over the past three seasons. McLeod has hardly played significant minutes on Draisaitl’s wing in prior seasons. 
However, logically, McLeod should be a strong stylistic fit with Draisaitl. Draisaitl is one of the league’s top rush creators, and he has a history of performing well alongside speedy, transitional players. Replacing Kane with McLeod results in a much faster second line.
Not to mention, McLeod’s defensive prowess is another benefit for Draisaitl; in the past three seasons, McLeod has been on-ice for 2.2 goals against per 60 at 5v5, the lowest (i.e. best) rate among all of Edmonton’s current forwards.
As for McLeod and Foegele as a duo, they have spent significant time together on the third line. The two have been consistently excellent at driving possession and scoring chances; however, they also consistently underperformed the chances they created. On the third line, Foegele and McLeod had a superb 58 percent expected goal differential together but a much less appealing 45 percent actual goal differential. Neither of them are elite finishers nor passers.
On the other hand, Draisaitl’s possession metrics have never been top-tier, but for his entire career, Draisaitl has consistently outperformed his on-ice expected results due to his elite finishing and passing abilities. This is why it makes a lot of sense to pair Draisaitl with Foegele and McLeod.
For these reasons, it is pretty reasonable to conclude that this trio does possess the potential to have sustained, long-term success.

Why finding an RD partner for Nurse will also improve the second-line

Since Knoblauch’s arrival, he has often deployed two “five-man-units.” McDavid’s line spends a significant portion of their time with the Ekholm-Bouchard pairing, while Draisaitl’s line has largely played with the Nurse-Ceci pairing.
On one hand, the RNH – McDavid – Hyman line has produced dominant results with the Ekholm – Bouchard pairing. With those five players on-ice, the Oilers have a 62 percent goal differential, and high-danger chances are 57 to 12 (!!) in favor of Edmonton.
However, the other five-man-unit has not had nearly as much success.
With Draisaitl, Nurse, and Ceci on-ice, Edmonton has still managed to out-score opponents. However, there does seem to be some luck involved, potentially unsustainable, as they have a 48 percent shot and scoring chance differential. 
Interestingly, the Ekholm-Bouchard pair and the Nurse-Ceci pair have had somewhat similar results with the McDavid line, but there is a drastic difference in their results with Draisaitl’s line. Ekholm/Bouchard still drive play exceptionally well with the second line, while Nurse/Ceci are out-shot and out-chanced with the second line.
I believe one key factor for this is zone exits. A player like Leon Draisaitl highly benefits from defenders who can consistently get him the puck.
Per our tracking project, Evan Bouchard is by far Edmonton’s best defenceman at exiting the defensive zone, averaging 15.6 controlled exits per 60 at 5v5; no other Oilers defenceman averages over 12. Ceci is on the other end of the spectrum, ranking last among Edmonton’s defencemen with 9.8 controlled exits per 60. Ekholm and Nurse are generally similar at exits. 
Specifically in regards to moving the puck up the ice, the difference between Ekholm/Bouchard and Nurse/Ceci is significantly attributed to how much better of a puck-mover Bouchard is than Ceci.
In each of the past two seasons, Nurse’s results are far better away from Ceci. Acquiring a potential right-defenceman at the trade deadline, someone who can defend well and consistently break the puck out of the zone, should be one of Ken Holland’s priorities. Considering how much Nurse’s pairing plays with Draisaitl’s line, improving Nurse’s pairing should instantly enhance the second-line’s results as well. 

What about the hole created at 3C?

With all of that in mind, the big issue that Edmonton’s current second line creates is a hole at 3C. Ryan McLeod has primarily played in that role.
Last season, the Oilers out-scored opponents 74 to 60 at 5v5 without Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on the ice, equating to a 55 percent goal differential; that is the best that Edmonton’s bottom-six has played at in the entirety of the McDavid/Draisaitl era in Edmonton. McLeod was a big part of that, posting a 53% goal share and 57% expected goal share away from McDavid and Draisaitl. Removing him from 3C evidently makes the bottom-six weaker.
Currently, Derek Ryan is slotted in the 3C role. Ryan is 37, and has spent a significant chunk of his time on the wing in the past two seasons, often alongside McLeod. Can Ryan play as an effective 3C in the long-term? I have my doubts.
James Hamblin’s results have been solid in a limited role at 4C, and he has been a very strong forechecker. However, he’s not an NHL 3C at the moment.
One fascinating potential internal fix to the 3C hole is Dylan Holloway.
Nov 2, 2023; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Dylan Holloway (55) tries to carry the puck around Dallas Stars defensemen Miro Heiskanen (4) during the first period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Holloway has not played much time at center since his days in the NCAA, and has yet to establish himself as an impact player in the NHL. Not to mention, his career has been hampered by injuries, as Holloway has been out with a lower-body injury since Knoblauch’s first game behind the bench for Edmonton. It is far from a guarantee that Holloway can play effectively in this role.
But, Holloway has much more potential and upside than Ryan and Hamblin. It is certainly worth a shot to give him an opportunity here before spending assets on an external 3C upgrade.
Currently, Holloway is in the AHL with the Bakersfield Condors to get up to speed following his injury. According to Condors coach Colin Chaulk, Holloway will be playing at center. Unfortunately, his return has been delayed due to Bakersfield’s games being postponed, but it is a wise idea to keep him at center in Bakersfield before potentially deploying him at 3C in Edmonton.

Final Thoughts

Moving forward, in regards to the forward lines, the Oilers should continue doing what they’re doing.
A larger sample for the McLeod – Draisaitl – Foegele trio, especially against tougher opponents, will be much more revealing. It will grant them a much better idea if they can depend on that line in the playoffs. As of now, numerous green flags suggest this line can be effective in the long-term, and a RD upgrade could improve this line’s performance even further.
So far, in the 3C role, Ryan’s line has been out-scored 2 to 3 at 5v5, although they do possess a 52 percent scoring chance share. It is also crucial to obtain a greater sample here and observe if Ryan can still be a capable NHL 3C. If Ryan cannot be effective in this role, it would be best to recall Dylan Holloway, who should be getting up to speed and playing center in Bakersfield. 
If neither Ryan nor Holloway establish themselves in this role, Ken Holland will be forced to make an important decision.
Depending on the success of their new second line, and the performance of the bottom-six without McLeod, should the Oilers target a 3C via trade? Or, would it be best to bump McLeod back down to 3C, and find a natural top-six winger for Draisaitl via trade? 
Note that a RD partner for Nurse and a goaltending partner for Skinner should also be on Edmonton’s to-do-list. With their limited cap space, it will be fascinating to see what Edmonton’s management ultimately decides to do.
There are roughly 9 weeks left until the NHL Trade Deadline. Figuring out if Edmonton’s second line is the real deal, and what impact it has on the third line, will be incredibly important for this team.
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