Playing McDavid with Draisaitl and Getting More Out of Nugent-Hopkins

Photo credit:Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Tyler Yaremchuk
11 months ago
The Oilers split the first two games of their season and while that’s far from a disastrous start, the results are actually acceptable, I do actually have a few things I want to get off my chest. I was going to call them concerns but that’s probably not the right word to use. I don’t think any of the things I’m noticing are going to cause the Oilers to miss the playoffs or anything like that, but they’re still worth discussing. 
The Oilers beat the Vancouver Canucks despite spotting them two goals in the first few minutes of the game. They almost came back against the Calgary Flames despite basically doing the same thing. This is a trend that dates back to the playoffs last year when in a lot of big game situations, the team came out of the gates flat. Game one against LA, game five against LA, and also the first two games of the Battle of Alberta. 
They need to find a way to show up on time consistently. 
Going down early in each of the first two games of the season has really made it tough to get a good understanding of how good this team can be. Part of the reason I’m incredibly optimistic that this Oilers team can go on a deep playoff run is that I think the depth they have in their top nine is about as good as it gets in the Western Conference. Personally, I believe they have the best top nine in the Conference.
I don’t think it’s the best top nine in the NHL when they throw McDavid and Draisaitl on the same line for the bulk of the hockey game, which Jay Woodcroft has felt forced to do in back-to-back games with his team trailing. Putting the team’s two superstars together turns the Oilers back into a one-line team.
At 5v5, when Woodcroft has loaded up McDavid, Draisaitl, and Kane on one line, the Oilers are getting outshot at 5v5. 
The comeback win against the Canucks was fueled by their special teams and the near comeback against the Flames was because Stuart Skinner was lights out and the Oilers actually got some depth scoring. Loading up McDavid and Draisaitl actually wasn’t a key driver in either of those games. So keep them split up at 5v5.
They’ll do damage together on the powerplay and that’s a huge advantage that the Oilers have in every game they play in, but I believe this team’s best chance to finish as one of the best teams in the Western Conference during the regular season is to keep 29 and 97 split up at 5v5.
In the final ten minutes of a game when you’re down by one? I can get behind that. But I don’t think throwing them together a few minutes into a game every time you’re trailing and then having to throw all your other lines into a blender is a great recipe for long-term success.
If this whole rant sounds familiar to you, it’s because I covered all of this on my daily show ‘Oilersnation Everyday’ which streams on The Nation Network YouTube channel every weekday and game day at noon mountain time.
Keeping McDavid and Draisaitl split up is one thing that I would like to see in the next few games, the other thing I’d like to see is more from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at even strength.
Now, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins brings plenty to the table on the special teams side of things. He’s a powerplay witch to quote my good friend Lowetide and he’s one of their most used penalty killers, racking up 7:51 of shorthanded time on ice through two games which is the most by any forward. Hyman is second at 6:57 and surprisingly Ryan McLeod is third at 6:01.
He’s a very good special teams player and since the Oilers can rely on him to kill penalties, they’re really never forced to overuse either of McDavid or Draisaitl when they’re down a man and can use that time to rest them. McDavid has been on the ice for 0:52 of SH time while Draisaitl is up at 4:30 since they like using him for faceoffs. Giving those two a chance to rest is important and Nugent-Hopkins is one of the reasons they can do that.
Still, this team needs more from Nugent-Hopkins at 5v5. Last year was not a great season for #92. He scored 11 goals in 68 games with just seven of them coming at even strength. If they’re going to commit to him being their third-line centre, which I’m fine with, then they need to have him putting up better offensive numbers, which I actually believe he’s capable of.
In back-to-back seasons, his even-strength shooting percentage has been below 8%. Before that, it was 12.5%, 12.4%, and 15.2%. He scored at a 20-goal pace, or better, in all three of those seasons. There should be some positive regression soon, it’s why I picked him to be one of the Oiler’s eight 20-goal scorers this year as one of my bold predictions.
He needs to finish off his chances better and if that comes, then the Oilers will get more goals while McDavid and Draisaitl are off the ice. 
One idea that I’ll discuss a little bit more on tomorrow’s show: pair up Jesse Puljujarvi and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the third line. Give Nugent-Hopkins a player capable of driving play. They’ve spent a considerable amount of time together this season and while the results haven’t been outstanding, outshot 9-7 in 16:15 together and no goals for, they also haven’t been on the ice together for a goal against. I think this duo could have potential. Give it a try.
What’s your take? How should Woodcroft put together the top nine for tomorrow’s game against Buffalo?

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