What are the optimal forward line combinations for the Edmonton Oilers?

Photo credit:© Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
28 days ago
With a 6-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche on Friday night, the Edmonton Oilers have officially clinched a playoff spot.
However, as we near closer to the playoffs, the Oilers don’t seem to have an established set of forward line combinations. Since February 19, the Oilers have deployed five different first-line combinations, 11 different second-line combinations, and 11 different third-line combinations in 24 games. 
Edmonton has been one of the most successful teams in the NHL following the coaching change, as they hold an excellent 42-15-4 record under Knoblauch, equating to a fantastic 0.721 points percentage. There is no doubt that the Oilers have been excelled under Knoblauch. But, Knoblauch has shuffled around players quite frequently, contrary to his initial comments following his hiring in which he stressed line stability and consistency. 
So, with the playoffs beginning in roughly two weeks, what are Edmonton’s most optimal line combinations? Here is a closer look.
*All microstats via our tracking project, all other stats via Natural Stat Trick unless stated otherwise

Should McDavid and Draisaitl play together full time?

Every Oilers coach has frequently played McDavid and Draisaitl together on the same line for lengthy periods, especially when the going got rough. 
In fairness, it isn’t difficult to see why, as pairing two of the best offensive players in the league results in a near-unstoppable offensive top line. McDavid and Draisaitl have had fantastic results together as a duo this season, as Edmonton has outscored opponents 38 to 20 with McDavid and Draisaitl on the ice together at 5v5 while additionally holding an excellent 61 percent expected goal differential. There is no doubt that pairing them together results in a lethal offensive weapon.
However, despite these gaudy offensive results, there are two key reasons why I believe McDavid and Draisaitl should not play full-time on the top line together.
Firstly, Draisaitl has been quite strong as Edmonton’s 2C this season.
For his lofty standards, Draisaitl is not scoring at his typical 110-120+ point pace, but his 5-on-5 metrics away from McDavid are currently the best of his career. With the exception of 2022-23, Draisaitl has always produced a strong 5v5 goal differential away from McDavid, and is one of the few elite players in the league who can consistently out-produce his on-ice expected goals, but this year, both his goal and expected goal share rank at high levels. In spite of inconsistent linemates, Draisaitl’s line has often dominated both the goal share and overall possession.
Furthermore, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is far more effective on the wing than at second-line centre. In the past two seasons, the Oilers have a net-even goal differential with RNH at 2C, alongside a 50 percent expected goal differential; this is not bad by any means at all, but simply put, Draisaitl is far more effective at 2C. RNH works much better as a complementary winger for one of those two, as he substantially improves to a 58 percent goal differential and 60 percent xGoal differential on the wing.
Edmonton is simply too much of a top-heavy team with McDavid and Draisaitl loaded up together. Allowing them to centre their own lines results in a much more spread out and balanced lineup.
That said, it is a good idea to load them up when the team needs a goal. If the Oilers ever trail by a goal or two in the third period, I believe it is the best choice to temporarily deploy McDavid and Draisaitl together to spark the team. It grants them a much better chance of a comeback.
But, in regards to full-time line combinations, I believe the Oilers are best with McDavid and Draisaitl on separate lines.

Why Knoblauch should focus on building around line “duos”

When forming the line combinations, I believe Kris Knoblauch should focus on complimenting three particular duos with a history of solid results and chemistry together: McDavid/Hyman, Draisaitl/Foegele, and McLeod/Kane.
Firstly, McDavid and Hyman’s results have been remarkable throughout the past three years. Over the past three seasons, the two have played nearly 2150 minutes together and have out-scored opponents at a superb ratio of 154 to 89 at 5-on-5. They also boast a 62 percent expected goal differential, 64 percent high-danger chance differential, and a 67 percent high-danger goal differential.
This season, RNH has primarily been the LW alongside those two. The RNH, McDavid, and Hyman trio rank first among all NHL lines (minimum 200 minutes) in expected goal share. They have been phenomenal.
But, it is worth noting McDavid and Hyman have played with a variety of left-wingers and have excelled regardless of who is the other player on that line. There is no doubt they have excellent chemistry together.
As for the second line, Draisaitl and Foegele are an underrated duo. They have played nearly 700 minutes together at 5v5 throughout the past three seasons ,and have out-scored opponents 41 to 29, alongside a 56 percent expected goal differential. Foegele’s production is much better next to Draisaitl’s, as his goal differential jumps nearly a full 13 percent on his wing. Draisaitl’s metrics at 2C are also far better alongside Foegele. In a pretty significant sample size, they have also shown chemistry together.
Finally, Evander Kane and Ryan McLeod have not played a massive amount of time as a line throughout the past three seasons, but their results together are strong when they have. Together, they possess a 58 percent expected goal share, out-chancing opponents 161 to 127; on the other hand, the Oilers have been completely out-chanced with Kane on-ice without McLeod. 
At this point, Kane is not a bonafide top-six winger. He would likely benefit from playing much against weaker competition, while he heavily benefits from McLeod’s transitional game and defensive game. Meanwhile, although Kane’s finishing has heavily regressed as of late, he still does have a scoring touch with 14 5v5 goals on the year. This attribute would benefit McLeod, who has proven he can drive possession and scoring chances on the third line but struggles to score/produce consistently.
Building around duos with proven chemistry and strong on-ice results is likely the best way for this team to run optimal line combinations.

Balancing finishing, play-making, and speed

Ultimately, the Oilers should aim to have adequate finishing talent, play-making, and transitional speed on all four lines.
Specifically, I believe Edmonton should place emphasis on being a faster transitional team. Currently, the Oilers are the oldest team in the league, and outside of a few select players, they are far from the fastest. The playoffs are filled with skilled, speedy, dynamic teams, such as Dallas, Florida, and especially Colorado. If the Oilers want to increase their chances of winning a seven-game playoff series against those teams at full health, they must be able to counter their speed.
With everything in mind, here are what I believe might be the most optimal line combinations for the Oilers:
Henrique – McDavid – Hyman
RNH – Draisaitl – Foegele
Kane – McLeod – Perry
Holloway – Carrick/Ryan – Brown/Gagner
Adam Henrique has been a consistently productive player throughout the past three years, but a key flaw in his game is his transition/speed. Per NHL EDGE, his top speed and speed bursts per hour rank below the 50th percentile, while in the games he has played with Edmonton thus far, he ranks last in zone entries per hour. Even by using his results in Anaheim, he ranks in the 2nd percentile in the league in zone entries per 60 (per AllThreeZones).
It is difficult to split the dominant trio of RNH, McDavid, and Hyman, but as mentioned earlier, McDavid and Hyman have thrived regardless of who is on their left wing. As a result, I wonder if Adam Henrique is best suited for 1LW. Henrique wouldn’t have to worry about transporting the puck regularly playing next to Connor McDavid and Evan Bouchard, while Henrique provides even more offensive production to that line.
By deploying this top line, that leaves Nugent-Hopkins to complement a different line, and I believe he would be best suited alongside Draisaitl and Foegele. The RNH/Draisaitl duo has also produced strong results together in the past, and Foegele works best as a third wheel on the second line.
As for the third line, Kane, McLeod, and Perry produced some pretty strong results together in a limited sample thus far. They boast a 69 percent expected goal differential in 51 minutes, and excelled in Edmonton’s most recent victory against Colorado in which the trio combined to score 3 goals. Given that Kane and McLeod have shown chemistry throughout the past three seasons, this could still be a successful line in a bigger sample.
The McLeod – Draisaitl – Foegele line did have early success, but they have cooled down in their TOI since March. Of course, it still remains a very viable option, and Edmonton always has the option to swap RNH and McLeod if needed, but these may be the more balanced lines. McLeod’s speed are a superior stylistic fit with Kane and Perry in comparison to RNH, while RNH is the more proven top-six player.
Finally, the Oilers have multiple different options for the fourth line, and I expect Knoblauch to often switch and shuffle players in and out. One player that should certainly be in the lineup come playoff time is Dylan Holloway, who provides speed and youth to a bottom-six that lacks those attributes outside of McLeod. If the Kane/McLeod/Perry line sustains strong results, the best spot for Holloway is likely on the fourth line, but they could always switch Perry with Holloway if the third line requires more speed.
Connor Brown has been much better in the month of March, and is the most likely candidate for 4RW, but I wouldn’t mind giving Sam Gagner another chance. While he doesn’t help Edmonton in regards to speed, Gagner still does rank 6th on the team in 5v5 points per hour, and is a good 13F to have. Raphael Lavoie is also an option, and could provide finishing talent to the bottom-six, but it is likely too late into the season for him to (realistically) obtain a regular spot in Edmonton’s lineup barring injuries.
Additionally, while this isn’t something Kris Knoblauch has attempted much, it is worth noting Edmonton also has the option to run eleven forwards and seven defencemen. It allows Edmonton to double shift McDavid and Draisaitl as Edmonton’s 4C.
Think about it like this – the Oilers would be replacing Sam Carrick or Derek Ryan’s minutes with more minutes from McDavid or Draisaitl, likely resulting in increased production from their fourth-line wingers and ensuring they always play with speed. Not to mention, it results in considerably increased flexibility for the defensive pairs.
All-in-all, there are a variety of different options for the Oilers in regards to line combinations, but I believe the lines above are the most balanced and optimal they can currently create with the given roster. As the playoffs near closer, we’ll wait and see what Kris Knoblauch ultimately decides to do.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

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