This is the fifth installment in my series about creating the ideal line combinations for the start of the 2021 Oilers season. The top three lines are as follow:
You can read my reasoning for these line combinations here.
There’s one line left for me to fill out. Playing on the 4th line has always had a bit of a negative stigma attached to it. The 4th line gets the least minutes out of all of the forwards on the team, and that is usually because they are the least talented players on the team. I don’t see it like that anymore because the quality of the competition in the NHL is unbelievably high. You need to be able to play at a high level if you’re going to have any kind of a spot on an NHL roster. The 4th line is the line that gets sent out to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Those players typically have big roles on the penalty kill, which is hugely important. These are the unsung heroes of any team.
The first element of this line that I’ll look at is the centre position. The two candidates for the 4C spot are Jujhar Khaira and Gaetan Haas. Each of them has their own unique traits. Khaira has the size factor, and he has the added bonus of being a rare Oilers draft pick from outside of the first round to earn a full-time roster spot in the last decade. Haas has the speed factor working in his favour. Haas is the older of the two, but Khaira has more experience in the NHL.
Haas’s offensive numbers were slightly better than Khaira’s were last year, but the reason that I give the slight edge to Khaira here is because of his PK ability. Khaira ranked 4th out of all of the Oilers forwards in PK minutes last season. The men in front of him were Riley Sheahan, Josh Archibald, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Sheahan is not coming back this year, and losing two of the top four penalty killing forwards from last season’s 2nd ranked NHL PK group would be a bit of a thing. Khaira’s inconsistency offensively is a bit maddening because he has shown skill in small doses before, but he makes up for it with his PK ability.
Archibald and Zack Kassian are the two notable wingers that I haven’t given roles to yet. They are the leading choices for the 4th line winger spots. Archibald was 6th among Oilers wingers in even strength goal scoring last season. Some of that can be attributed to the 4 goals that McDavid assisted, and some of that can be attributed to the fact that he scored 3 empty net goals. Regardless, he still scored the goals. He also scored a couple of shorties last year. He and Sheahan formed the top PK forward pairing last season, and they were quite effective. I flipped James Neal to his off-wing on the 3rd line, so that means that I’d have to move a RW over to the left side or leave a quality RW off of the opening night roster just to keep a guy on his natural wing. Archibald can play 4LW. He’s my choice there because of his work on the PK, his tenacity, and his level of even strength goal production.
It would seem quite odd to start Kassian on the 4th line given his success with McDavid last season and his new $3.2 million contract, but here we are. First of all, it was either I put Kassian’s $3.2 million on the 4th line or I put Neal’s $5.75 million on the 4th line. Neither scenario is ideal, but it’s a sign that there are value contracts on the roster now such as Tyler Ennis, Dominik Kahun, and Jesse Puljujarvi. Kassian tied Nuge for the lead among Oilers wingers with 15 even strength goals last season, but that total was certainly aided by McDavid. Kassian ended up being demoted to Sheahan’s line against the Blackhawks, and he was basically invisible. His spot on McDavid’s wing was taken by Archibald in that series. Kassian’s usage in the playoffs is a sign that his place on the top line is certainly not set in stone, and any of the bottom 6 wingers that I’ve chosen to utilize could realistically hold their own in cameo roles in the top 6. You could argue that any of the wingers not named Nuge or Yamamoto could play anywhere in the lineup. I don’t love putting Kassian on the 4th line, but he needs a place on the roster and I’ve written at great length about why I’ve placed the other wingers where I’ve placed them in previous articles.
The Archibald-Khaira-Kassian 4th line looks to be a solid line. All three of them are fast and physical, which would make them tough to play against in the offensive zone. Archibald and Kassian have proven that they can score at even strength. Khaira’s consistency level would play a role in the success or failure of this line, but it has potential to be an effective 4th line.
After all of that, here are my ideal forward lines for the 2021 Edmonton Oilers:
Overall, this looks like a dangerous forward group. All four lines have guys that can put the puck in the net. I did my best to create as many scoring lines as I could. I wanted to spread the wealth offensively. I could only split up the Nuge-Draisaitl-Yamamoto line if there was another LW that could be approximately as effective in Nuge’s place, and Ennis’s fancies with Draisaitl and Yamamoto in the playoffs and at the tail end of the regular season were good enough to show me that he could be that guy, even though the point totals don’t back that up. Nuge is also the only LW that really meshed with McDavid, so that factored into my decision as well. Puljujarvi’s spot on the top line is based on his fancies with McDavid being as good as they were over the course of his three seasons in Edmonton and because of the fact that he has matured as a player and as a person in Finland.
I put Kahun on the 3rd line because Ennis is more of a known commodity as an Oiler, Kahun didn’t mesh well with Malkin (which matters because he has a similar playing style to Draisaitl), and because he hasn’t been outscored by any level of competition in either of his first two NHL seasons. The third line needs to improve its even strength goal share, and I believe that Kahun will be a factor in making that happen. Neal got the nod over Kassian on the third line because his even strength goal scoring rate away from McDavid last season was better than Kassian’s has ever been away from McDavid as an Oiler. Neal is the superior goal scorer. Neal was terrible at even strength for the most part last season, but he was also dealing with injuries during the latter half of the season. He looked much better in the playoffs.
I feel that I should give an honourable mention to Alex Chiasson here. He’s a veteran that brings quality leadership and a recent Stanley Cup ring to the room. He had a fantastic first season in Edmonton, and he got paid for it. He carved out a role as an occasional powerplay guy last year, and he was one of the most effective bottom 6 wingers on the team. The arrival of Puljujarvi has pushed him off of the everyday roster. The Oilers could lean on Neal, Kassian, Puljujarvi, or Kyle Turris to fill his role on the powerplay. Chiasson does still has value, but I see him as an extra forward with this group. Haas is the other forward that I would keep around because of his speed and because they need to have an extra centre available.
Joakim Nygard is still an intriguing player, but I don’t see where he fits on this roster unless there are injuries. Patrick Russell is a hard worker that doesn’t hurt your roster, but he doesn’t contribute enough offensively to warrant having him on the NHL roster in 2021. Guys like Tyler Benson and Ryan McLeod would have to pass too many veteran NHL forwards to even get a look in the 2021 season barring a rash of injuries.
The fact that the Oilers will have quality NHL players as their extra forwards is a great sign. This truly is the deepest group of Oilers forwards in decades. The great thing about that is that there will be several line combinations that could be successful. The lines that I want are usually different from the lines that other people want, and the lines that the coach goes with are usually different than the ones that anyone wants. Next week’s piece will be about the lines that I think that coach Tippett will actually deploy to start the 2021 season.