2021 Lines #3: Rounding Out the Top 6

In case you missed it last week, I decided that I would start the 2021 season with Nuge on McDavid’s left wing and Ennis on Draisaitl’s left wing. Those two lines need right wingers, and that is going to be the focus of this week’s piece.

There are four true candidates that I’m going to choose between for the last two spots in the Oilers top 6. I’m sure that many Oilers fans would be angry at finding out that I didn’t slot newcomer Dominik Kahun at left wing in the top 6, but he can play any forward position. I’m not ruling out the idea of him playing on the right side yet. Kailer Yamamoto was called up in the middle of last season, and he ended up going on a tear while playing on a line with Nuge and Draisaitl. Zack Kassian spent the majority of his 2019-20 season playing with McDavid based on a hot streak while by McDavid’s side to end the 2018-19 season. Jesse Puljujarvi was not a top 6 player during his first stint in Edmonton, but Puljujarvi has grown and matured as a player and a person since then. He could be ready to break out this coming NHL season if given a chance to play with a skilled centre.

Here’s how the Oilers wingers ranked in terms of even strength goal scoring last season:

T1. Nuge – 15
T1. Kassian – 15
T3. Ennis – 11
T3. Kahun – 11
T3. Puljujarvi – NHLe of 11 (16 in 56 games in Finland)
6. Archibald – 10
7. Yamamoto – 9 (27 GP)
8. Neal – 7

Archibald’s name is surprisingly high on this list given his usage primarily as a bottom 6 forward and on the PK. Neal battled through injuries in the latter half of the season, but he did most of his damage on the powerplay, where I would expect him to have some kind of role in 2021. I don’t see him in a top 6 role to start the season. I don’t see either one of these two getting a look in the top 6 to start the season. It’s nice to have quality depth at wing.

First, we need to find a spot for Yamamoto. His 9 even strength goals in 27 games played is by far the highest scoring rate among Oilers wingers. We can reasonably expect Yamamoto to build on his success from last season. He might not score at the same prolific pace that he scored at last season, but he will surely be one of the best even strength scoring wingers on the team. He was a part of that spectacular line with Nuge and Draisaitl last season, but I have decided to break that trio up by putting Nuge with McDavid. Yamamoto has earned a spot on one of the top two lines. The question now becomes do I put Yamamoto with Nuge, or do I put him with Draisaitl?

If I were to look specifically at Yamamoto’s numbers with Nuge last season, we’d see that they were fantastic together; but what we don’t know is how much of an impact that Draisaitl had on that trio and whether or not McDavid would be a better choice between those two wingers.

Here is how the Yamamoto/McDavid pairing fared last season:

Yamamoto w/McDavid 19-20 Regular Season
TOI Corsi For % GF % HDCF %
26:13 52.83% (28-25) 50% (1-1) 7-5 (58.33%)

The sample size was extremely small, but the results weren’t bad. I think it’s reasonable to expect that Yamamoto would be a decent fit with McDavid because of his ability to create havoc in the offensive zone, because of his creativity, and because of his ability to score close to the net. Yamamoto looked a little trigger shy when he got the chance to play with McDavid during his first stint in Edmonton, but he has clearly gotten over the star struck feeling he seemingly had a as a rookie based on his results with Draisaitl last season. Yamamoto and McDavid could work together, but his results with Draisaitl were clearly better.

Now we need to figure out whether Yamamoto was better with Nuge or with Draisaitl. The trio was amazing together, but we need to see if there is any evidence to suggest that Yamamoto was a better fit with one or the other.

Nuge + Yamamoto w/o Draisaitl 19-20 Regular Season
TOI Corsi For % GF % HDCF %
10:22 15.38% (2-11) 0% (0-1) 50% (1-1)

Draisaitl + Yamamoto w/o Nuge 19-20 Regular Season
TOI Corsi For % GF % HDCF %
74:42 43.97% (62-79) 20% (1-4) 44.12% (15-19)

The interesting thing here is that no combination of two out of the three of Nuge-Draisaitl-Yamamoto was any good together, but the three of them together were incredible. Nuge and Yamamoto didn’t have a statistically relevant amount of time together without Draisaitl, so this isn’t the fairest comparison. It’s clear that Tippett tried to keep Yamamoto with Draisaitl whenever possible last season.

We can see that Draisaitl and Yamamoto weren’t spectacular together without Nuge. Ennis would be their left winger if Yamamoto and Draisaitl were to be together in my version of the lines. They also played together in the playoffs. Their results:

Ennis-Draisaitl-Yamamoto 2020 Playoffs
TOI Corsi For % GF % HDCF %
23:57 56.86% (29-22) 50% (2-2) 66.67% (8-4)

It’s a small sample size, but the line was quite effective. I said that the goals will come for the Ennis and Draisaitl duo if given more time together. We’ve seen the goals come for the Draisaitl-Yamamoto duo already. We have to remember that Yamamoto is going into his first real full season as an Oiler. It would be beneficial for him to have continuity in his line mates going into this season. Ennis is still fairly new for him, but Draisaitl is quite familiar to him. It makes the most sense to play Yamamoto with Draisaitl, which means my 2nd line of Ennis-Draisaitl-Yamamoto is set in stone.

Let’s find a right winger to round out the top line that features Nuge and McDavid. I included this in last week’s piece, but McDavid’s wingers need to complement McDavid’s skill set. Here are McDavid’s strengths and how his wingers could 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.

The right winger on this line needs to be able to create havoc on the forecheck. He needs to be the physical one on the line because Nuge and McDavid are not physical. Obviously, he needs to be able to put the puck in the net because McDavid and Nuge are both playmakers first. Yamamoto fits this description perfectly, but I’m going to keep him with Draisaitl, so we need to look elsewhere.

I’m excited about Kahun, but my first impressions of him tell me that he is not overly physical. He is also more of a playmaker than a goal scorer, which makes me think that he might not fit as nicely on that line as others on the team might. I think that he would be an important piece on a 3rd line that really needs to improve its even strength goal share if the Oilers want to contend this season.

That really leaves Kassian and Puljujarvi as the options to play RW with McDavid and Nuge. Kassian spent most of his time with McDavid last season, and he got 15 even strength goals. That beat his career-high total by 1, which he set in 2018-19 largely due to an extended stint with McDavid. These totals far surpass any of his totals in other years with the Oilers, where he got 6, 7, and 3 (36 games) even strength goals. Here are Kassian’s other numbers with McDavid from last season:

Kassian w/McDavid 19-20 Regular Season
TOI Corsi For % GF % HDCF %
663:27 49.09% (617-640) 54.55% (42-35) 52.73% (145-130)

They got outshot, but they did quite well in the more important metrics. We have to remember that Draisaitl was the other winger for McDavid and Kassian for a long time at the beginning of last season, which definitely played a role in the success of the McDavid-Kassian pairing. Nuge would be their winger in my version of the lines, so let’s see how the trio did together last season:

Nuge-McDavid-Kassian 19-20 Regular Season
TOI Corsi For % GF % HDCF %
44:22 48.68% (37-39) 100% (2-0) 52.94% (9-8)

This line didn’t get a lot of time together last season. The Nuge-McDavid-Kassian line wasn’t bad, but we need to see if there’s any chance that Puljujarvi would be a better fit alongside Nuge and McDavid.

David Staples wrote a piece in September where he suggested that Puljujarvi and Joakim Nygard would be the best internal candidates to play on McDavid’s wing. Here are the important numbers pertaining to McDavid and Puljujarvi’s time together from 2016-19:

TOI Shots For % GF % HDCF %
408 53.1% 61.5% (24-15) 57.5%

Those 408 minutes together were combined over Puljujarvi’s entire tenure in Edmonton, but the numbers look fantastic across the board. Puljujarvi is a more mature player now, so I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect that kind of performance if given the chance to play with McDavid. McDavid’s HDCF% with Puljujarvi is better than his HDCF% was with Kassian last season. That makes me think that Puljujarvi will be a better fit with McDavid in 2021 than Kassian will be.

I’m going to remind you of Nuge and McDavid’s numbers together from the regular season and the playoffs last year combined:

Nuge w/McDavid 19-20 Regular Season + Playoffs
TOI Corsi For % GF % HDCF %
111:19 52.25% (116-106) 53.33% (8-7) 54.54% (30-25)

Their GF% would be much better if not for that horrid Game 1 performance against Chicago where they were on the ice for 3 even strength goals against, so that 8-7 score doesn’t quite do the pairing justice. Nuge and McDavid were amazing together in the other three games against Chicago, and they’ve had successful runs together before. The Nuge-McDavid-Puljujarvi line would likely score at will.

Aside from the last two seasons where Kassian has played with McDavid, he hasn’t scored more than 7 even strength goals. His totals were 7, 6, and 3 (36 games) in his other seasons as an Oiler. Puljujarvi had 10 in 65 games in 2017-18. He only had 4 in 46 games in 2018-19, but he was also dealing with his hip issues during that season. It was a tumultuous season for Puljujarvi to say the least. Here is a comparison of their even strength goals/game rates as Oilers thus far:

Kassian:
2015-16: 0.08
2016-17: 0.09
2017-18: 0.08

Puljujarvi:
2016-17: 0.00
2017-18: 0.15
2018-19: 0.09

Kassian’s results were consistent before getting a chance with McDavid. Remember that he only had 2 goals on the season in 2018-19 before getting placed on McDavid’s wing on January 12, 2019. Puljujarvi got 1 powerplay goal in 26 games in his rookie season, but his other two seasons were just as good or better than Kassian’s three as an Oiler before getting to play with McDavid.

Kassian was able to raise that rate to 0.25 even strength goals/game last season while mostly playing with McDavid. Kassian played 59 games last season, which is about as many games as we can expect in 2021. Given the fact that Puljujarvi showed that he could score at a higher rate than Kassian without McDavid before his season in Finland, I believe that Puljujarvi could best Kassian’s 0.25 even strength goals/game mark if he were to play with McDavid. I think that 17 even strength goals in 60 games for Puljujarvi is not unreasonable if he were to play with McDavid.

I think that Puljujarvi has all of the tools that he needs to succeed with McDavid. He’s got the size needed to protect pucks. He’s becoming more physical. He’s got the shot and the goal scoring ability, although I do think that his release needs to get a little bit quicker to really pile up goals in the NHL. I think that he will need to get a bit better at finding soft spots in the defence to get open, but that will come with more time on North American ice.

There are going to be fans that believe that Puljujarvi needs to earn his spot with McDavid by playing on the third line to start the season. He took a year away from the Oilers, but we can’t pretend like the kid hasn’t paid his dues. He spent three seasons bouncing up and down between the NHL and the AHL. The vast majority of his NHL minutes have been bottom 6 minutes. He’s been doing exactly what those fans want him to do now for three seasons, and he has the benefit of a season in Finland under his belt. Puljujarvi had paid his dues. This is the NHL. The coach needs to put the players in the best positions to succeed, and Puljujarvi isn’t going to succeed playing on a soft minutes 3rd line. The best players need to get the most ice time, and I’m certain that Puljujarvi is going to be the best right winger at camp.

I’m not going to be upset if coach Tippett decides to start Puljujarvi on the third line in 2021 because he will need time to get used to North American ice again, but I really think that his rightful spot on the Oilers roster is alongside McDavid.

To recap, here is the top 6 that I would start the 2021 Oilers season with:

Nuge-McDavid-Puljujarvi
Ennis-Draisaitl-Yamamoto

I left Kahun out of my top 6 altogether, which means that I’m going to slot him on the 3rd line beside Kyle Turris. Next week’s piece will focus on finding a right winger for that duo. The candidates as I see them include Kassian, James Neal, and Josh Archibald.

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