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What are the Oilers’ ideal top-six line combinations?

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Photo credit:© James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
6 months ago
The 2023 NHL off-season wasn’t particularly eventful for the Edmonton Oilers, but there were a couple of tweaks made to their forward group.
Firstly, the Oilers dealt Klim Kostin and Kailer Yamamoto to the Detroit Red Wings for future considerations. For the past couple of years, Yamamoto has spent the vast majority of his time in the Oilers’ top six, primarily playing on Leon Draisaitl’s right wing. However, he simply never performed at the level of a top-six player, ranking 265th in the league in 5v5 points per hour. As he carried a cap-hit of $3M, the Oilers needed to shed some cap, and eventually decided to move on from him.
Their most notable free agency signing was RW Connor Brown. The hope is for Brown to be a regular contributor to Edmonton’s top six and perform much better than Yamamoto did.
In the 2023 playoffs, there were numerous reasons why Edmonton lost to Vegas in the second round, but 5v5 scoring from their top-six wingers was a significant one. Hyman, Kane, RNH, and Yamamoto had just one 5v5 goal each in 12 playoff games. Moving forward, if the Oilers wish to have playoff success, they will require significantly better 5v5 scoring from McDavid and Draisaitl’s wingers.
With all that in mind, how should the Oilers shape their top-six line combinations? Here’s a closer look into their current projected top-six players, and where they’d fit best in the line-up.
*All stats via Natural Stat Trick unless stated otherwise

How should the Oilers deploy their centers?

The Oilers have three primary options in regard to center deployment. 
The first option is to run McDavid, Draisaitl, and McLeod as their top three centers, with Nugent-Hopkins on the wing; this was what Edmonton typically ran for most of the 2022-23 season. The second option is to play McDavid and Draisaitl together on the top line, with RNH centering the second line. Thirdly, there’s also the alternative of McDavid, Draisaitl, RNH, and McLeod all running their own lines. 
Which one is the most ideal? Numerous factors will play a role here, such as Draisaitl and RNH’s results playing center, Draisaitl’s results as McDavid’s winger, and McLeod’s ability to effectively play at 3C.

First, here’s a look at Draisaitl’s 5v5 results without McDavid.
From 2019-20 through 2021-22, Draisaitl consistently performed well centering his own line, posting a 5v5 goal differential of 57 percent, 58 percent, and 54 percent in those three seasons respectively. For reference, McDavid was at a goal share of 56 percent without Draisaitl, and the rest of the team without McDavid was at an awful 43 percent. In this span, Draisaitl had very clearly proven he could drive his own line.
However, he saw a significant decrease in 2022-23, posting a substandard 48 percent goal share away from McDavid. This did seem like an off-year for his standards at 5v5.
His offence away from McDavid was fine. With Draisaitl on-ice and McDavid off-ice, the Oilers generated 3.15 5v5 goals per 60; conversely, the Oilers generated 3.08 goals per 60 with McDavid on-ice and Draisaitl off-ice. The major reason for such a huge decline in Draisaitl’s goal differential was due to his GA, as Draisaitl’s line allowed an awful 3.5 goals against per 60. I believe the biggest factor for this was Jack Campbell, as the Oilers had an abysmal on-ice save percentage of 0.880 with Draisaitl on-ice and Campbell in net.
Additionally, there were reports that Draisaitl was not 100% healthy early in the year. Since March, and including the playoffs, Draisaitl’s goal share away from McDavid was a strong 55 percent. Based on these reasons, I believe 2022-23 is an outlier, and based on the sample of over 2000 minutes from 2019-20 through 2021-22, it’s safe to say Draisaitl is still an extremely effective center.
Now, what about Nugent-Hopkins?
It’s not so easy to evaluate RNH’s results here, as Edmonton’s winger depth over the years has been quite lackluster. The best wingers of the group are often paired with McDavid and Draisaitl, leaving RNH to play with quite inferior linemates.
In an attempt to level the field and make it more fair, here’s how RNH’s results look away from McDavid and Draisaitl, in comparison to the rest of the team’s results away from McDavid and Draisaitl:
There’s no consistent trend in these year-to-year results. RNH was quite poor as the team’s 2C in 2019-20. In a smaller sample, he was much better in 2020-21, and his goal share was strong in 2021-22 (although his shot and scoring chance numbers were not). In 2022-23, the bottom six was at the best it’s ever been, and the team without McDavid/Draisaitl produced superior metrics without RNH as opposed to with.
All-in-all, RNH doesn’t possess the most appealing track record at center in recent memory. Again, the lack of strong linemates plays a massive role, but considering that both McDavid and Draisaitl see an increase in their shot metrics when RNH is on their wing, it’s likely best to deploy him there.
Moving on, what about McDavid and Draisaitl together? Is it still a good idea to deploy them as a regular line?
The major advantage of loading up the top line is their dynamic offence; with McDavid and Draisaitl on-ice together at 5v5, the Oilers generated a fantastic rate of 4.1 goals per bour. However, I still don’t believe it’s enough to justify deploying them together as a long-term line combination.
Running McDavid and Draisaitl on the same line makes them much more top-heavy. Especially considering that it’s doubtful if RNH can be an effective 2C, it considerably weakens the second line. One major benefit of having McDavid and Draisaitl center their own lines is the offence being more spread out, and opposition coaches would have a much harder time attempting to counter and line-match them when they’re on separate lines.
Furthermore, McDavid and Draisaitl play a much more high-event, “run-and-gun” style of hockey when they play together, resulting in worse defensive results. In the past four seasons, both McDavid and Draisaitl are on-ice for roughly ~2.6 goals against per 60 when centering their own lines, but when they’re together, their goals-against rate jumps to 3.4.
It’s preferable if they’re given occasional shifts throughout games rather than keeping them as a full-time line, such as right after a PK to generate momentum, or in the third period when the team needs an offensive spark. Since Jay Woodcroft is fond of running the 11F/7D set-up, it’s easy to double-shift the two together from time to time.
With all that in mind, I believe the most ideal option is to continue running McDavid and Draisaitl on their own lines. RNH would primarily play on the wing, and McLeod would be the team’s 3C.
In the past two seasons, no current Oilers forward has been on-ice for fewer goals against per 60 at 5v5 (2.28) than McLeod. Per PuckIQ, Edmonton has also out-scored elite competition at a ratio of 15 to 7 with McLeod on-ice. This season, McLeod’s line should start being used as a defensive shutdown option against top opposition offensive lines, which opens up more opportunities for McDavid and Draisaitl to do their thing.

The ideal winger combinations

I’ve used this visual in a prior article, but I’ll use it again here:
In spite of hitting the impressive 150-point mark, McDavid was actually a bit unlucky at 5v5 this past season. For the past two seasons, his linemates have consistently finished less than expected, and it’s largely held back McDavid’s 5v5 production rates. In 2022-23, McDavid ranked first in the league in shot and scoring chance assists per 60 (per AllThreeZones), but 86th in actual 5v5 assists per 60.
To fully maximize McDavid’s 5v5 offensive potential, he requires a strong scoring winger. 
As for Draisaitl, I believe he would benefit from a strong defensive conscience, and a high-volume shooter, as Draisaitl doesn’t take a ton of shots himself at 5v5 (he ranks 244th in the league in 5v5 shots per hour). With that in mind, I believe it would be best to pair Evander Kane/Connor Brown with McDavid, and RNH/Zach Hyman with Draisaitl.
When healthy, Kane is Edmonton’s best scoring winger. In the past two seasons, Kane ranks 25th in the league in 5v5 goals per hour. Of course, the “healthy” part is the major question mark, as Kane is coming off a significant left wrist injury. It was also reported that he played with a broken finger on his right hand in the playoffs. Two injuries on both hands in a span of less than a year is a concerning sign for a player whose primary attribute is his goal-scoring and shooting ability, but regardless, he’s currently Edmonton’s best option in that regard.
Connor Brown isn’t a spectacular finisher, but he has an encouraging history of efficient 5v5 production and is a sneaky underrated play-maker (per AllThreeZones, Brown ranks in the 88th percentile in scoring chance assists and high-danger passes per hour). With the current roster, playing Kane and Brown with McDavid is likely the best way to maximize McDavid’s play-making and Kane’s shooting abilities.
None of Edmonton’s top-six wingers are particularly exceptional defensively, but RNH is the best of the bunch, making him the best available option for Draisaitl. Hyman checks off the volume shooting criterion. RNH and Draisaitl have produced a 55 percent goal differential together without McDavid in the past three seasons, while the duo of Hyman/RNH has a goal share of 53 percent, and a scoring chance share of 57 percent. The trio of Draisaitl, RNH, and Hyman hasn’t spent significant time together in the past two seasons, but I believe there’s a good chance they would be an effective line.
Of course, there are several other viable options as well. Warren Foegele has posted a 60 percent goal share with Draisaitl in a limited sample, so there is the alternative of deploying Foegele at 2RW and moving Hyman to the third-line to spread out the line-up. The line of RNH – McDavid – Hyman has a fantastic 59 percent goal share and 65 percent scoring chance share in 222 minutes together. Brown isn’t a bad defensive player either, and his play-making skills could complement Draisaitl well. I also wouldn’t mind giving Dylan Holloway or Raphael Lavoie an opportunity in the top-six later in the season if they excel in bottom-six roles.
It’ll be interesting to see how Jay Woodcroft will deploy his line combinations throughout the season and in the playoffs.
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