2021 Lines #6: Tippett’s Likely Lines

I’ve spent the last 5 weeks slowly revealing my ideal lines for the 2021 Oilers, which are as follows:

Nuge-McDavid-Puljujarvi
Ennis-Draisaitl-Yamamoto
Kahun-Turris-Neal
Archibald-Khaira-Kassian

However, the real lines are never what any of us want them to be. The coach always seems to make up one or two combinations that frustrate the masses. Today’s piece is going to focus on trying to predict how coach Tippett will construct his lines on opening night for the 2021 season.

Bob Stauffer released his prediction for the lines on Twitter on Monday, which are as follows:

Nuge-McDavid-Kassian
Kahun-Draisaitl-Yamamoto
Ennis-Turris-Puljujarvi
Neal-Haas-Archibald
Nygard-Khaira-Chiasson/Russell

I don’t think that those lines will be far off of the lines that we actually see come mid-January, but I believe that there will be a couple of key differences.

Those that want the Nuge-Draisaitl-Yamamoto line to be reunited are likely going to be disappointed. Coach Tippett split that line up near the end of the regular season because he wanted to spread the wealth offensively. He stuck to his guns for the playoffs, and the results were largely successful. The Oilers didn’t lose because they didn’t score enough goals. They lost because they struggled to keep it out of their own net. The underlying numbers for the Nuge-McDavid pairing and the Ennis-Draisaitl-Yamamoto line were really good, even though their goal shares weren’t sparkling. Those lines carried the play against Chicago. I don’t see any reason why Tippett would deviate from his Nuge-McDavid and Draisaitl-Yamamoto pairings for his top two lines given their playoff performance.

Zack Kassian was not good in the bubble. He was basically invisible on McDavid’s wing in game 1 against Chicago, and he was even less visible once he was demoted to Sheahan’s line. However, I don’t think any other winger has shown the coaching staff enough to warrant starting above Kassian on McDavid’s right side yet. My personal belief is that Jesse Puljujarvi is the most talented right winger on the roster and he should be on McDavid’s wing. I’m also realistic enough to understand that the messaging from Ken Holland and Dave Tippett during their negotiations with Puljujarvi’s camp was that there is opportunity for him, but nothing will be given. It sounds like the plan is to have him start lower in the lineup beside a veteran centre, most likely Kyle Turris. Josh Archibald replaced Kassian on McDavid’s wing in the playoffs, but his skill set is better utilized lower in the lineup. Kassian will likely get the nod on the top line alongside McDavid and Nuge.

Most Oilers fans and pundits alike seem to believe that newcomer Dominik Kahun will start the year beside fellow German Leon Draisaitl. Kahun’s scoring rate at even strength in his first two NHL seasons would lead one to believe that he’s a top line forward. Kahun and Draisaitl played together as kids, and they dominated their competition. Kahun is new and exciting, which is leading most Oilers fans and pundits to believe that he will start the year in the top 6.

I don’t see it that way. According to PuckIQ, Kahun played 39.4% of his time against elite competition in his rookie season against Chicago. That number dropped to 26.1% while he was with Pittsburgh last season. He played 126:52 with Evgeni Malkin last season, and their performance together left a lot to be desired:

Kahun w/Malkin 2019-20 Regular Season
Corsi: 50.41%
HDCF: 51.02%
GF: 41.67%

Their Goals For % was not good at all. Their Corsi and High Danger Chances For % don’t suggest that they were getting killed, but they weren’t spectacular either. This is interesting and relevant because Draisaitl has a similar playing style to Malkin. Both of them are big guys that like to slow the game down when the puck is on their sticks. They can both dangle through an entire team on command. Both of them use their size to protect pucks, and both of them have elite vision and playmaking. They are also both elite goal scorers. Kahun didn’t mesh well with Malkin, and I think it’s fair to predict that he won’t mesh well with Draisaitl either. Hypotheses can be proven wrong, but I’m sticking with my hypothesis that Kahun and Draisaitl won’t be a good fit together. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

Kahun played most of his minutes in Pittsburgh with Jared McCann as his centre. Their performance together was much better than the Kahun-Malkin duo’s was:

Kahun w/McCann 2019-20 Regular Season
TOI: 300:19
Corsi: 50.54%
HDCF: 50.65%
GF: 64.29%

I’m not a math expert, but 64.29% is much better than 41.67%. The results were much better for the Penguins when Kahun was on the 3rd line last season. Not surprisingly, his even strength point production was better in Pittsburgh with less time spent against elite competition than it was in Chicago in his rookie season where he played mostly against elite competition. He produced 0.5 even strength points per game with Pittsburgh, and he produced 0.43 even strength points per game with Chicago.

Remember that Tippett used the Ennis-Draisaitl-Yamamoto line in the playoffs. The line’s performance was as follows:

Ennis-Draisaitl-Yamamoto 2020 Playoffs
TOI: 23:57
Corsi: 56.86%
HDCF: 66.67%
GF: 50%

The Goals For percentage would definitely tilt in this line’s direction if their Corsi and HDCF percentages were to continue to be as great as they were against Chicago. Ennis was just starting to gel with Draisaitl when he broke his leg. I don’t see Tippett suddenly going away from that line to start the season because they were so effective against Chicago.

Kahun’s overall even strength scoring rate is better than Ennis’s, but Ennis’s usage against elite competition as an Oiler last season (39.8%) was close to Kahun’s usage against elite competition during his rookie season in Chicago (39.4%). Ennis produced 0.44 even strength points per game with the Oilers during the regular season; and he added 2 more even strength points in 3 playoff games against Chicago, bringing his Oilers even strength points per game rate to 0.5. Kahun’s rate while getting similar usage with Chicago was 0.43. The sample size for Ennis is smaller, but it’s definitely not unreasonable to suggest that Ennis could be as productive as Kahun could be on a 2nd line.

Kahun was tremendously effective while playing on the 3rd line in Pittsburgh last season. Kahun has not been outscored by any level of competition in either of his two NHL seasons. The Oilers desperately need a 3rd line that won’t get caved in every night. We know that McDavid and Draisaitl will outscore their competition on most nights. Imagine how good the Oilers could be if they had a 3rd line that could win their matchup more often than not instead of simply hoping to not get caved in every night. A 3rd line featuring Kahun could make that little fantasy a reality. Kahun-Turris-Puljujarvi is a line that has a lot of potential to put up some points. This isn’t a traditional checking 3rd line. It’s a line with creative offensive players that can produce.

Stauffer’s 4th line features Gaetan Haas between James Neal and Josh Archibald. I believe that he’s got the wingers correct for this line, but I think that Jujhar Khaira will get the nod over Haas. I love Haas’s speed, but we know that Tippett likes his 4th line to feature specialty players such as penalty killers. Haas doesn’t kill penalties, but Khaira does. Khaira and Archibald were two of the team’s top four penalty killing forwards last season. The Oilers will have to deal with the loss of Riley Sheahan on the PK. Leaving Khaira out of the lineup would mean having to replace two penalty killers from last season. It’s not impossible, but it’s also not ideal.

After all of that, here are the lines that I think that Tippett and the Oilers will start the 2021 season with:

Nuge-McDavid-Kassian
Ennis-Draisaitl-Yamamoto
Kahun-Turris-Puljujarvi
Neal-Khaira-Archibald

No matter what the coach does, people will always find things to whine about. I’ll be whining about Puljujarvi needing to be playing higher in the lineup, and I’m sure people will be whining about Kahun not playing in the top 6.

Regardless of how you feel about whatever line combos that coach Tippett decides to roll out, this group of Oilers forwards promises to be the best that we’ve seen in the last decade, and dare I say even this century. The bar is set pretty low, but this is a deep and skilled group of forwards that could do some damage in the Canadian Division in 2021. I’m looking forward to watching the mayhem unfold!

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