2021 Lines #2: The Top 6 LW Not Named Nuge

In case you missed it, last week I wrote about which Hart Trophy winning centre Nuge should play with in 2021. There is a strong case to be made for either one. Nuge is a great fit with both McDavid and Draisaitl. The tie breaker in making that decision will be how other left wingers could fare with McDavid or Draisaitl, which brings us to today’s piece.

Ken Holland has done a masterful job at collecting quality wingers this off-season. Today’s focus is on the left side, which is where Holland has done his best work. He started by re-signing trade deadline acquisition Tyler Ennis. He totalled 37 points in 70 games in Ottawa and Edmonton. Last week, Holland signed Dominik Kahun. The 25-year old had 31 points in 56 games between Pittsburgh and Buffalo. Ennis and Kahun are nice additions to the left side that leave the Oilers with the deepest group of wingers that they have had in over a decade.

According to Puck IQ, Ennis spent a higher percentage of his time playing against low level competition (40.9%) than he did playing against elite competition (24.4%) while he was with Ottawa. His Corsi stats were middling in Ottawa. 51.5% against low level competition was his highest mark, but Ennis did outscore middle competition (14-13) and low level competition (11-9). The problem with Ennis in Ottawa was that he struggled against elite competition. He was outscored 5-11 against elite competition as a Senator. Ennis was effective as a bottom 6 forward in Ottawa, but not so much against elite competition.

His usage against elite competition went up dramatically as an Oiler during the regular season. He spent the most time playing against elite competition (38.9%), and the least amount of time against middle competition (23.2%). His 50% Goals For % against elite competition in Edmonton was an improvement, but his Corsi % against elite competition actually went down with the Oilers (46.7% in Ottawa vs 45.6% in Edmonton). Ennis started out playing with McDavid. Here’s a glimpse into how they fared together according to the Line Tool at Natural Stat Trick:

Ennis w/McDavid 19-20 Regular Season
TOI Corsi For % GF % HDCF %
68:40 43.07% (59-78) 50% (5-5) 51.28% (20-19)

The results for this pairing were mediocre. While the Ennis/McDavid pairing held its own on the scoreboard and in high danger chances, they got outshot by a considerable margin while they played together. Let’s see how Ennis did with Draisaitl:

Ennis w/Draisaitl 19-20 Regular Season
TOI Corsi For % GF % HDCF %
37:00 55.71% (39-31) 1-2 (33.33%) 65.22% (15-8)

The sample size was really small, but the 33.33% Goals For % really does not serve this pairing justice. They dominated in terms of shot share and high danger chances for %. They also spent some time together during the play-in series against Chicago. The results:

Ennis w/Draisaitl 19-20 Playoffs
TOI Corsi For % GF % HDCF %
25:52 55.56% (30-24) 50% (2-2) 69.23% (9-4)

The results for the Ennis/Draisaitl pairing carried over from the regular season. If we add up all of the time that Ennis and Draisaitl spent together, the sample size is basically the same as the time that Ennis spent with McDavid. Here’s the table for the total time that Ennis and Draisaitl spent together last season:

Ennis w/Draisaitl 19-20 Season Total
TOI Corsi For % GF % HDCF %
62:52 55.65% (69-55) 42.86% (3-4) 66.66% (24-12)

Those results blow the Ennis/McDavid pairing out of the water! It’s a small sample size, but it’s fair to say that Ennis and Draisaitl played well while they were together last season. There’s nothing there that would suggest that the two would be unsuccessful together. I think that Ennis is a good fit alongside Draisaitl because of the way that he gets in on the forecheck, the way he can create turnovers, and his creativity. He’s also got the hands necessary to put up points while playing with skilled players.

Kahun is a newcomer, so we obviously don’t have any information on how well he has played with McDavid and Draisaitl. Alright, that’s not ENTIRELY true. Kahun and Draisaitl were teammates as juniors in Germany and they tore their league apart! That likely revealed more about the quality of their competition than it did about their compatibility at the NHL level. They have both evolved as hockey players, and the NHL plays on the smaller ice surface. Their friendship and their junior success together don’t necessarily mean that they will be successful on a line together in the NHL.

Kahun does have some experience playing with skilled players such as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in Chicago and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. Kahun played 39.4% of his time in Chicago against elite competition. That usage is a stark contract from the 26.1% of his time spent against elite competition that he got in Pittsburgh last season. I’m not sure why Pittsburgh didn’t use him against elite competition often, but here’s how he fared with Malkin last season:

Kahun w/Malkin 19-20 Regular Season
TOI Corsi For % GF % HDCF %
126:52 50.41% (123-121) 41.67% (5-7) 51.02% (25-24)

These results aren’t anything special. Malkin has a similar playing style to Draisaitl. Malkin can dangle his way through the entire team on command. He can use his size to protect pucks. He has the vision and the creativity to make plays at an elite level, and he is an exceptional goal scorer. All of those things can be said about Draisaitl as well. Kahun’s numbers with Malkin were less than inspiring, and they offer little to suggest that a Kahun/Draisaitl pairing would be as dynamic as Oilers fans seem to think it would be given the similarities between Malkin and Draisaitl.

I’m not sold on the idea of Kahun and Draisaitl together. Is there a chance that Kahun could work well with McDavid? Let’s look at what it takes to succeed on McDavid’s wing based on his strengths and what skill sets would complement them.

1. Speed

McDavid is an odd man rush waiting to happen. He kills defences with his speed on the rush. Odd man rushes happen because of turnovers in the defensive zone most often. Everyone loves puck moving defencemen because they get the puck to the forwards in favourable positions, but that responsibility isn’t just reserved for the defencemen. The wingers need to be able to win battles along the wall in their own zone, and they need to be able to either get the puck out of the defensive zone or make a smart pass to exit the defensive zone. McDavid needs wingers that can win puck battles in their own zone and that can get him the puck when he is in full flight. Those wingers also need to be able to get the puck to 97 in the offensive zone.

2. Playmaking

Everyone in the league knows that McDavid thinks pass first. Obviously, the perfect complement to a playmaker is a guy that can score goals. The ideal wingers for McDavid need to be able to finish because McDavid will create high danger chances on almost every shift. However, I’m going to dig a little bit deeper here. In order for a pass to be completed, two things have to happen: the passer needs to make a good pass, and the receiver needs to be open. The latter is on McDavid’s wingers. Being a good pass receiver is about knowing how to get open. The ideal wingers for McDavid would be able to find open passing lanes in the offensive zone. McDavid can feather passes across the seam or into the slot better than anyone in the league, so his wingers need to be able to find open passing lanes in those areas.

3. The cycle

McDavid excels on the cycle. His lines can trap opponents in their own zone for long shifts. Continuing the thought on McDavid’s wingers needing to know how to get open, the ideal wingers would also have a good understanding of how McDavid dissects defences. That is typically done on the cycle. McDavid keeps the puck to the outside along the wall and he moves it around the zone in a circular fashion, whether he passes it or carries it himself using his speed. Once he gets his chance, then he will find a guy with a cross seam pass for a back door tap in goal. He uses his ability to change directions ridiculously quickly to shake defenders. He also works well with wingers that can protect the puck along the boards. If a winger can protect the puck, then McDavid can skate by him in the opposite direction of the flow of the cycle and get the cycle going the opposite direction. The wingers support McDavid on the cycle by making quick and simple decisions with the puck, by protecting the puck along the boards, and by winning races to loose pucks.

According to everything that I have read about Kahun, his best asset is his playmaking ability. He’s got soft hands and he is a smart passer. That tells me that he would likely be able to get McDavid the puck while he is in full flight, and it tells me that he would be able to get the puck to McDavid in the offensive zone as well. Kahun is not a big nor a physical player, so the right winger on a potential Kahun/McDavid line would need to be the physical one. That right winger would also need to be a scorer because Kahun and McDavid are both playmakers first. Kahun’s 11 even strength goals last year would’ve put him in a tie with Ennis for 5th on the Oilers, which is evidence that he can finish, but that is not his calling card. I’m intrigued by a potential Kahun/McDavid combination, but that’s not where I would go to start the season.

James Neal is still a factor at left wing as well. He played a significant amount of time with McDavid last season. Let’s see how they did together:

Neal w/McDavid 19-20 Regular Season
TOI Corsi For % GF % HDCF %
225:42 50.85% (209-202) 42.11% (8-11) 56.10% (46-36)

Their HDCF% was great, but the Goals For % number for Neal with McDavid was concerning. To their credit, they were a low-event pairing. For context, Ennis and McDavid played about a third of the minutes together that Neal and McDavid did, but the Ennis/McDavid pairing was involved in more than half of the amount of goals that the Neal/McDavid pairing was (10-19). The numbers show that the Neal/McDavid pairing was effective at creating chances, but they couldn’t capitalize on those chances. It wasn’t as if they were getting caved in while playing together, they just couldn’t score. I wouldn’t start the 2021 season with Neal and McDavid together, but Tippett could go to that combination at some point during the season with the hopes that the duo might begin to find the back of the net.

I want known commodities wherever it’s possible to get them to start the season. Nuge is the only left winger that we know definitively will be productive with McDavid. If Nuge is the only left winger that we know can produce with McDavid and there is another option that plays well with Draisaitl, then Nuge should be with McDavid. Nuge was incredibly productive with Draisaitl, but the Ennis/Draisaitl pairing outshot and outchanced their opponents by a wide margin while they were playing together. The goals will come for that duo. They were starting to hum before Ennis broke his leg against Chicago. I know that breaking up the Nuge-Draisaitl-Yamamoto line will be an unpopular move, but I think that it’s the right move to start the season. Tippett can always go back to that combination in a heartbeat if he decides that the lines he starts out with aren’t working.

Here are my left wing and centre pairings for the top two lines to start the 2021 season:

Nuge-McDavid
Ennis-Draisaitl

I said it at the start of this series and I’ll say it again now. The lines will change multiple times throughout the season. I’m certain that we will see the Nuge-Draisaitl-Yamamoto line reunited at some point, and I’m sure that Kahun will get a look beside Draisaitl eventually, but neither of those scenarios are how I would start the season.

If I put Nuge with McDavid and I put Ennis with Draisaitl, then that leaves Kahun outside of the top 6 should he play on the left side. That is also not going to sit well with a lot of Oilers fans. Kahun’s addition was supposed to be the reason that Nuge could play with McDavid, but there is more recent tangible evidence to suggest that Ennis is that guy. Kahun’s even strength production in his two NHL seasons is 86th in the league according to David Staples, which would mean that he ranks as a top line point producer at even strength. His usage in Chicago would make one agree with that assessment, but his usage in Pittsburgh would make one pause.

If we look at how Ennis and Kahun were utilized with their former teams last season, they played similar percentages of their time against elite competition. Ennis played 24.4% of his minutes against elite competition in Ottawa, and Kahun played 26.1% of his minutes against elite competition in Pittsburgh. Kahun was the better even strength point producer of the two with their former teams last season. He produced 0.52 even strength points/game Pittsburgh and Buffalo last season, while Ennis produced 0.39 even strength points/game in Ottawa with similar usage. That tells me that Kahun is better at producing points against weaker competition.

We’re not trying to figure out which player would be better at producing offence against weaker competition, we’re trying to see which guy would be a better fit in the top 6. Kahun produced 0.43 even strength points/game while playing mostly against elite competition with Chicago in his rookie season. Ennis hadn’t seen significant usage against elite competition in many years until he joined the Oilers, but he produced 0.44 even strength points/game in his 9 regular season games with the Oilers. That’s basically the same as Kahun’s output. Ennis added 2 more even strength points in the 3 games he played against Chicago, both coming while playing with Draisaitl.

Kahun’s time playing against mostly elite competition was two seasons ago, while Ennis’s recent sample of time against mostly elite competition was really small. Neither are truly statistically relevant for differing reasons, but both players yielded similar results in stretches playing mostly against elite competition. I’d prefer to start the season with the known commodity playing beside Draisaitl. Recency bias takes the day for me, so Ennis is my choice over Kahun.

Kahun’s worst Goals For % in any season against any level of competition is his 54.2% mark against elite competition in Pittsburgh last season (excluding his 6-game stint in Buffalo). He consistently outscores his opponents no matter where he plays in the lineup! The Oilers need a third line that will not get outscored. Given that Ennis has recent NHL success with Draisaitl and that Kahun produces more even strength offence against weaker competition, it makes sense to put the kid that doesn’t get outscored on the third line.

However, Kahun can play all three forward positions. I’ve got Ennis occupying the 2LW spot, but that doesn’t mean that Kahun couldn’t be the RW on one of the top two lines. I want to turn over all of the stones before settling on my ideal line combos. Kahun, Yamamoto, Puljujarvi, and Kassian will be in contention for those last two spots in the top 6. Rounding out the top two lines will be the focus of next week’s piece.

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