In case you missed it last week, I settled on my opening night top 6 for the 2021 season, which looks like this:
If you have missed any of the three previous pieces in my series on the 2021 Oilers Lines, then you can catch up and read my arguments for these particular line combos here.
Now that the top 6 is set, it’s time to focus on the 3rd line. This was a major weak spot for the Oilers last season. Riley Sheahan was the 3rd line centre last season. According to Puck IQ, his even strength goal differential last season was an abysmal 31.5% (17-37). The Oilers had the two top scoring players in the NHL last season, and the Oilers did not run away with the President’s Trophy. There were nights where it felt like the Oilers had no chance of scoring a goal, even with the two Hart Trophy winners in the lineup. The reality of the Oilers last season was that if a team could find a way to keep McDavid and Draisaitl off of the score sheet, then that team would win the game. McDavid and Draisaitl consistently outscore their opponents. A 3rd line that won’t get caved in every night is the biggest obstacle standing in the Oilers’ way. If the Oilers can create a 3rd line that can at least come close to breaking even, then they could win their division in 2021.
Enter Kyle Turris. Ken Holland signed Turris to take his shot at the Oilers 3C position after he was bought out by Nashville. He had 31 points in 62 games for the Predators last season. That was awful production for the $6 million that Nashville paid him to play in their top 6 last season, but that kind of offensive production would be a revelation out of a 3C for the Oilers. We have to take a breath and remember that he also got 10 powerplay points last season. There aren’t many powerplay minutes available given how strong the top PP unit is, but there are more quality pieces that could allow the Oilers to have a second PP unit in 2021. Turris had 21 even strength points in 62 games last season. That would equate to 28 even strength points over a full season. That would be decent production for a 3C for $1.65 million.
Edmonton is a great landing spot for Turris. While his overall even strength goal differential of 45.6% isn’t glowing, his usage in Edmonton will allow him to fare a little better in that metric. As a 3C, he will spend most of his minutes playing against middle level competition. Puck IQ reveals that Turris had a goal differential of 56.5% against middle competition last season. That is a massive upgrade over Sheahan against that same level of competition (47.4%). The concerning thing about Turris’s goal differential from last season was his performance against low level competition, where his GF% was only 37%. However, if we compare that to Sheahan’s 15.8% GF% against low level competition from last season, Turris still represents a massive upgrade over Sheahan. Turris’s GF% against middle and low level competition last season combined was 46%. While it’s not amazing, it’s a significant upgrade.
The other nice thing about Turris is that he is right-handed. Turris and Gaetan Haas are the only right-handed centres on the roster, and I don’t expect Haas to be in the lineup every night. Turris’s performance at the faceoff dot has declined over the past three seasons according to NHL.com, but the numbers show that he can certainly hold his own when it comes to faceoffs. Turris’s presence allows coach Tippett to have a player that can win faceoffs on his strong side no matter where the faceoff is on the ice. That’s a little thing, but it could prove to make a difference in key moments over the course of the season.
As for his playing style, Turris is more playmaker than scorer, but he can certainly put the puck in the net. He’s a smart player that will likely do well with a variety of different player types. Turris’s wingers need to be skilled. They need to be creative enough to produce offence with a centre like Turris, and they need a heavy dose of defensive responsibility as well because this is a line that needs to improve its GF%.
I know that many people have Dominik Kahun playing higher in the lineup, but I left him out of my top 6 because I felt that Tyler Ennis had shown enough to get the first shot at playing with Draisaitl. The other reason for that is because Kahun simply has not been outscored at even strength by any competition level during his short career thus far. Aside from his 4 games with Buffalo, the worst GF% that Kahun has had in his career was 54.2% against middle competition with Pittsburgh last season. He does have experience playing with elite players, but Kahun only played 26.1% of his minutes against elite competition with Pittsburgh last season. He got 25 even strength points in 50 games with Pittsburgh (0.5 points/game) with that limited usage against elite competition. Playing beside a centre like Turris that has multiple 50+ point seasons under his belt while being able to avoid elite competition is a good situation for Kahun. The Kahun-Turris pairing has the potential to put up points offensively, and their GF% against middle competition from last season suggests that they will do a good job of making life easier for the Oilers goaltenders.
Now to find this duo a right winger. This line is going to need a bit of jam, so this right winger is going to have to be physical. He is going to need to be able to create space for Kahun and Turris to do their thing with the puck on their sticks. Kahun and Turris are both more playmaker than scorer, so this right winger will need to be a capable finisher as well. The contenders are Zack Kassian, James Neal, and Josh Archibald.
I included these stats last week, but I’m going to show you each of these wingers’ even strength goal totals from last season:
Kassian – 15
Neal – 7
Here is how they ranked in even strength goals/game from last season:
Kassian – 0.25
Archibald – 0.16
Neal – 0.13
Kassian led the group by a wide margin, but we have to remember that he played 663:27 with McDavid last season. Kassian has 3 Oilers seasons where he did not play with McDavid. His even strength goals/game rates for those seasons are as follows:
Kassian played about half of the season with McDavid in 2018-19, but he only had 2 goals up until that point that season. Kassian and McDavid got paired together in January of 2019. He had 2 goals from October to January of the 2018-19 season! It’s more than fair to say that Kassian’s impressive goal totals from last season were aided by McDavid. I’m sure that Kassian has become a smarter and more confident offensive player as a result of playing McDavid, but I don’t have enough evidence to say that he would score more even strength goals playing on a 3rd line with Kahun and Turris than either one of Archibald or Neal would.
If we break down Archibald’s even strength goals from last season, we can see Connor McDavid’s paws all over his total as well. McDavid assisted on 4 of Archibald’s 10 even strength goals last season. One of those was an empty net goal. Archibald also had 3 empty net goals. They still count, but they are not technically 5 on 5 goals. 6 of Archibald’s 12 total goals last season were either assisted by McDavid, empty netters, or both. Sheahan was his centre for most of the season, and his lack of production away from McDavid and at true 5 on 5 reflects that.
Suddenly, Neal is starting to look pretty good here. Exactly 0 of Neal’s even strength goals last year were assisted by McDavid. I’m confident in saying that Neal is the best goal scorer out of this group of wingers even though the results at even strength last year didn’t necessarily show that. Neal was hindered by injuries last season. His skating suffered through most of the year, but he did still show the ability to finish albeit mostly on the powerplay. Neal’s skating was noticeably better against Chicago after having time to heal, so I would expect his results to get a bit better at even strength in 2021. If I were basing the decision solely on goal scoring, Neal would be my guy.
GF% is the other factor that I need to look at here. Kassian had the best GF% results out of these three wingers last season by a wide margin. Kassian’s GF% was 50% against both middle and low level competition, and it was 58.1% against elite competition. Archibald and Neal had dreadful GF% performances. Neal was strong against elite competition, but his results were horrendous against middle and low level competition. Archibald’s GF% numbers were just bad all around. However, the inherent flaw in goals for and against stats is that the player in question can be doing the right things and still be getting goals scored against him due to the mistakes of others. Quite frankly, the only Oilers bottom 6 forwards that had anything resembling acceptable GF% results against any individual level of competition were Alex Chiasson and Sam Gagner. The question that we can’t reliably answer is about whether the GF% of guys like Neal and Archibald happened because they sucked as individuals or because the bottom 6 group as a whole sucked. My hypothesis would be that the results were so bad because the group as a whole sucked.
My other hypothesis is that the GF% of the player that gets to play with Kahun and Turris will improve in 2021. The goal here is to create a 3rd scoring line that will hold its own on the scoreboard. Neal is the most talented scorer that I haven’t assigned a spot to yet. He’s physical. His skating will have improved with sufficient rest and recovery time through the COVID pandemic. His GF% was sickeningly low while in the bottom 6 last year, but the only places to put him in 2021 are in the bottom 6, so I have to look past that and hope that it gets better if he is insulated by Kahun and Turris. Neal is a left shot that played LW last season, but playing on his off-wing will put him in better shooting positions more often than he was last year. Neal’s best asset is his shot, and playing him at RW should allow him to use his best asset more often. That means that my top three lines are as follows:
That is a tantalizing top 9! There is at least one player that can threaten 20 goals on all three of those lines. The Oilers haven’t had this much skill in their top 9 in quite some time.
Kassian is admittedly a surprising omission from my top 9 considering his successful 2019-20 campaign and his new contract. Once again, I would like to remind people the lines will change multiple times throughout the season. Coach Tippett clearly trusts Kassian to play with McDavid, and he can go back to that combination if Puljujarvi doesn’t work out on the top line. I’m guessing that Kassian will indeed start on the top line with McDavid and Nuge even though that isn’t how I would do it to start the season. Also, it was either I leave $3.2 million Kassian or $5.75 million James Neal on the 4th line. Nobody seems to be all that upset at the possibility of Neal’s contract being on the 4th line, and nobody was bothered by that during the playoffs. Kassian is probably the safer choice ahead of Puljujarvi on the top line, but I feel that Puljujarvi has the higher ceiling and I think he is ready for a chance alongside McDavid, even though his production is slipping a bit in Finland. Kassian is probably the safer choice over Neal for the 3rd line RW spot as well, but Neal has the higher goal scoring potential out of the two, which is an important consideration for a 3rd scoring line.
There’s only one more line left to be filled out. There are quite a few intriguing options for that line as well. Jujhar Khaira can play either left wing or centre. Gaetan Haas’s speed is asset for him at the centre position. Archibald ought to have a place on the roster every night if only for his work on the PK. Kassian will need a spot to play as well. Alex Chiasson has a solid argument for having a role on the ice as a PP specialist and a veteran leader. Joakim Nygard’s potential has yet to be fully realized due to injuries. Patrick Russell is a smart player that works hard, which is a perfect description for a 4th liner. I can only choose three of these guys to fill out my 4th line, which means that the Oilers will have quality players to choose between should any injuries occur in the shortened 2021 season. That will be the focus of next week’s piece.