2021 Lines #1: Who Gets Nuge

Before I start today, it’s important that I take a moment to remember our veterans that bravely fought for our freedoms. It’s important to remember the fallen, and to thank all of those that sacrificed their lives for us and all of those that risked their lives for us. Thank you, and lest we forget.

The most popular topic of debate among Oilers fans every year is about the lines. It’s fun to think about what the best possible line combinations are. It’s especially fun this year because coach Tippett will have a lot of possibilities because of the amount of quality wingers that Ken Holland has collected for him.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be doing a series of pieces where I will take a stab at determining the best possible line combinations for the Oilers for the 2021 season. I’m going to look at a number of factors. I will look at certain metrics based on their time together from last season when it’s possible to do that. Kyle Turris, Dominik Kahun, and Jesse Puljujarvi did not play for the Oilers last season, so I obviously won’t be able to consider how they fared with other Oilers forwards last season. The metrics that I will look at are Corsi For %, Goals For %, and High Danger Chances For %. I believe that these are the best metrics to use for understanding how well players played together. I believe that High Danger Chances For % is truly the best metric to determine just how well a line or a pair of players play together because good lines create high danger chances on offence and they prevent them on defence. Corsi does not factor in shot quality, and any stat involving strictly goals does not consider mistakes made by defencemen or by goalies. I’m going to make my decisions based on complementary skill sets as well. Chemistry is important, and I’m going to analyze each of the top three centres (McDavid, Draisaitl, and Turris) to figure out which types of wingers will mesh with each of them the best.

The one thing that I think is important to remember when discussing line combinations is that the only constant is change. The lines will change multiple times throughout the season. We get so worked up about the lines, but we all know that there are multiple combinations that will work well throughout the season. My focus will be on how coach Tippett should construct the lines to start the season.

The Oilers have more depth at wing this year than in any year in recent memory, but Ryan Nugent-Hopkins stands alone as the best Oilers winger right now. I don’t think there is any argument against that statement. We know that Nuge will play with either McDavid or Draisaitl, the question is which one? That is the biggest question that needs to be answered before we start creating lines. There is a solid argument to be made for Nuge playing with either superstar centre. Nuge and McDavid combined for 17 points during the four-game play-in series against Chicago, 8 of which came at even strength. Nuge and Draisaitl were two thirds of the top scoring line in the league from January 1st until the pause.

Nuge does most everything at a high level. He is a fantastic playmaker. He has a deceptive release. He can create turnovers on the forecheck. He even has a great defensive conscience. He is a great fit with either one of McDavid or Draisaitl for those reasons. Let’s see what the numbers say about how well he played with each of the Hart Trophy winners last season according to Puck IQ:

Nuge w/McDavid 19-20 Regular Season
TOI Corsi For % GF % HDCF %
65:49 48% (60-65) 66.67% (4-2) 50% (14-14)

Nuge w/McDavid 19-20 Playoffs
TOI Corsi For % GF % HDCF %
45:30 57.73% (56-41) 44.4% (4-5) 59.26% (16-11)

Nuge w/Draisaitl 19-20 Regular Season
TOI Corsi For % GF % HDCF %
446:21 51.46% (442-417) 68.75% (33-15) 52.44% (86-78)

The biggest discrepancy between these pairings is the time that they spent together. Nuge played a significantly lower amount of time with McDavid than he did with Draisaitl. McDavid and Draisaitl spent the first part of the season playing on a line with Zack Kassian. Then the Oilers called up Kailer Yamamoto for the New Year’s Eve game against the Rangers, and then the Nuge-Draisaitl-Yamamoto line was formed once the calendar turned to 2020.

The interesting thing about the Nuge-McDavid pairing is the inverse relationship between their Corsi For % and their GF % between the regular season and the playoffs. The pair was outshot in the regular season, but they still managed to outscore their opponents. They outshot their opponents in the playoffs, but they lost the battle on the scoreboard by a score of 4-5. It’s worth noting that the two were on the ice for 3 even strength goals against in game 1 of that series. One of those was the goal that was caused by the puck handling gaffe by Mike Smith. The second was a double deflection off of a faceoff. I have trouble truly blaming anyone for that type of goal. The Nuge-McDavid pair outscored the Blackhawks that they faced 4-2 at even strength in the other 3 games. Their HDCF% of 59.26% shows just how dominant the pair was against the Blackhawks. Their HDCF% was 50% during the regular season, which is probably close to as poorly as we could expect the pair to fare in this metric.

There’s a reason that Nuge and Draisaitl played so much together during the regular season. 33-15 pretty much says all that you need to know about how good the pair was together. However, their HDCF % doesn’t suggest that they dominated at the same level that their GF % suggests that they did. They spent the majority of their minutes together on trio completed by Yamamoto. Their numbers were as follow:

Nuge-Draisaitl-Yamamoto 19-20 Regular Season
TOI Corsi For % GF % HDCF %
317:37 52.13% (330-303) 77.78% (28-8) 77.78% (14-4)

Yamamoto’s presence made the Nuge-Draisaitl pair better in every metric here. Further proof of that is found in the numbers for the Nuge-Draisaitl pair without Yamamoto:

Nuge + Draisaitl w/o Yamamoto 19-20 Regular Season
TOI Corsi For % GF % HDCF %
128:43 49.56% (112-114) 41.67% (5-7) 52.27 (23-21)

The Nuge-Draisaitl-Yamamoto line worked because their skill sets are well matched. Draisaitl is dangerous off of the rush, but he does a lot of his damage off of the cycle. He uses his size to protect the puck, and he has the vision to find the open man in dangerous areas. He can also disappear into soft spots in the defence and finish from almost anywhere. I’ve already talked about how Nuge can make plays, use his deceptive release to finish plays, and create turnovers on the forecheck. Yamamoto has the tenacity to forecheck hard and create turnovers, the creativity to play the give-and-go game, and the ability to finish around the net. The three of them make a deadly trio because those skill sets mesh so nicely together.

We have to expect a little bit of regression in 2021 should that line stay in tact. A 77.78% Goals For % isn’t sustainable for anyone. That was largely fuelled by a 95.15% On Ice Save %, a 14.89% Shooting Percentage, and a 1.100 PDO. I’m not a stats expert, but those numbers are extremely high and they are not likely to be repeated.

Coach Tippett broke that line up near the end of the regular season because he wanted to spread the wealth across the lineup. That’s why he put Nuge with McDavid for the playoffs too. The Nuge-McDavid pairing was dynamic, especially in the last 3 games of the Blackhawks series. That makes me think that there’s something there with those two together. The sample size with Nuge and McDavid from last season was too small to warrant breaking up the Nuge-Draisaitl-Yamamoto line based on that alone, but Nuge and McDavid have had stretches of success playing together before the play-in series.

In all honesty, any line with Nuge and a Hart Trophy winner will be the team’s top line at that given moment. The other idea that we need to consider before locking any line combinations in is how other wingers fared with McDavid and Draisaitl. If there’s a left winger that can be approximately as effective as Nuge playing with Draisaitl, then it would make sense to put that player with Draisaitl and to put Nuge with McDavid. If there’s another left winger that we know will be able to produce with McDavid, then it makes sense to leave Nuge with Draisaitl. I will dive into that topic next week.

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