At the start of this year’s training camp, head coach Jay Woodcroft was quick to emphasise that this is a new season, a new team, and a new iteration of the Edmonton Oilers. Even with so much of the group returning, each season they must re-establish themselves, reconvene in their collective identity, and re-assert their individual strengths. As the Oilers have been inconsistent, the vision of the well oiled and tactically precise team in the second half of last season grows fainter. It must be earned, or forged, once more.
The vacating in the wake of these shortcomings leave behind the opportunity for the lineup to ebb and flow in news ways. Through injuries as well, there have been enough complications in the season’s early going to have induced a state of flux across the Oilers lineup. The future comes for us all, time is funny like that.
Let’s take a look at the current line combinations and what might unlock the upside within this season’s recipe for a strong Oilers team.
The current forwards group
Nugent-Hopkins — McDavid — Puljujarvi
Holloway — Draisaitl — Hyman
Foegele — McLeod — Kostin
Janmark — Shore — Ryan
The Oilers no longer lack depth for McDavid and Draisaitl to be paired together
The offence of this forward group, with Evander Kane injured, lies foremost through the quartet of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Zach Hyman. Currently split into duos, they each provide a cushy role for middle-six players in Jesse Puljujarvi and Dylan Holloway, eventually, perhaps, Kailer Yamamoto.
Although the Oilers once lacked the depth to afford having McDavid and Draisaitl on the same line full time, circumstances have changed. Unless Holloway starts finding his way, it might be too much to ask for either McDavid or Draisaitl to carry a duo of Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, or Holloway.
Meanwhile, Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins do their best work together, and should remain intact regardless of where they find themselves in this lineup. It might be best to swap Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins for now, as the Hyman-RNH combo could be great wingers to either Draisaitl or McDavid alone. Until Kane returns or a forward steps up into legitimate top six play (which is possible for Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, or Holloway), it is worth considering that the Oilers current depth shape opens the door for a reunion of a classic top line.
Holloway is deserving of an opportunity for a legitimate look in the top six. Easing his way into the lineup on the lower lines have likely placed a great deal of defensive pressure on the rookie, who does have the outline of an effective defensive player down the road. This is an opportunity for Holloway to showcase his NHL readiness. Regardless of the result, the Oilers should feel much more confident in their assessment of where Holloway should be playing. It is not a huge indictment of his potential to need some more AHL seasoning at this point, but playing less than ten minutes a night in the NHL won’t help the team or player very much at all.
The bottom six shows some offensive upside
Ryan McLeod has been quite promising as the full time third centre. Warren Foegele and Klim Kostin had a strong game on his wings, but ultimately it might be Puljujarvi who excels most here, as the duo of McLeod and Puljujarvi could be elite defensively. It is paramount to their long term success that the Oilers create a third line that can skate and check against top competition. McLeod clearly appreciates defensive skills and intensity on his wings for the assignment. Especially if Puljujarvi and/or Yamamoto are up in the top six, it is crucial for McLeod to show chemistry with other linemates.
Foegele has an honest game, straightforward and intense. Kostin might yet provide the best fit offensively, with a nose for the net, not to mention Yamamoto and Puljujarvi’s stagnated production. While Foegele should not be a regular in the top six, Kostin might earn a promotion should he display some consistency, stepping into some of Kane’s old spots. A Hyman-RNH-Kostin line might even work.
Derek Ryan and Mattias Janmark might be able to pinch up to the third line, while Devin Shore is a versatile fourth liner who can play all three forward positions and hold his own on faceoffs.
James Hamblin and Brad Malone might be the most likely call ups at this point, though both would be strictly bottom six forwards for the immediate future. With some interesting offensive options in the AHL, from Xavier Bourgault to Raphael Lavoie, that are better served in top AHL roles no matter their success throughout the season.
Potential forwards lineup come wintertime
Draisaitl — McDavid — Yamamoto
Holloway — Nugent-Hopkins — Hyman
Foegele — McLeod — Puljujarvi
Janmark — Ryan — Kostin
Flip Yamamoto and Puljujarvi to taste, the loaded top line will not be the problem either way. Yamamoto is falling out of favour in the top six, this spot gives him a last hurrah audition before a longer look elsewhere will be earned.
Puljujarvi gives the McLeod line a ton of upside, and investing a proper player like Yamamoto with them might be worth it. Finding the right mix on a reliable and hard working checking line would bring a new dimension to the Oilers overall team identity.
Switch Holloway and Kostin when Holloway is ideally ready; Kostin might be an interesting stopgap. Kostin and Holloway are quite speculative, as both are still in the early stages of proving themselves, but the skills might be there.
Presumably Foegele could swap in these spots as well, as he has shown great chemistry with Ryan over the years. For the time being, his strong play is appreciated on McLeod’s wing, a spot he might be able to cement himself to.
The current defence group
Nurse — Ceci
Kulak — Bouchard
Niemelainen — Barrie
Has the Nurse-Ceci pairing run its course?
It’s honestly impressive how far the duo of Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci have carried the Oilers over their time together. The much maligned, once or twice-upon-a-time Ceci has held down a top pairing spot for a long run, redeeming his reputation in the process. The time might be drawing near to put Ceci in a more reasonable situation.
A pair with Brett Kulak might be interesting, though both Nurse and Ceci bring similar skills to the table. For the time being, Kulak has some interesting potential with Evan Bouchard, who might be able to surpass the level he reached with Tyson Barrie as a partner. At some point we might see Barrie and Kulak reunited.
Markus Niemelainen is a great fit alongside Barrie, but hasn’t yet found much chemistry anywhere else. Niemelainen seems much more like a strong defensive extra than a full strength regular.
Potential winter lineup for defence
Nurse — Bouchard
Kulak — Barrie
Broberg — Ceci
The elephant in the room would be pairing Nurse with Bouchard, throwing Bouchard into the fires of a top role. He might not yet be ready, but the extra responsibility might awaken something as well.
Likewise, Ceci being freed up for deployment lower in the lineup affords Philip Broberg the ideal landing spot. Broberg has dealt with an upper body injury, playing only three games since training camp, so it might be worth getting a few games under his belt before the jump to the NHL. At some point, this is exactly the support Broberg would need to be well equipped to succeed in his coming of age.
These are three pairs that might all push for minutes. With an injured Nurse in last year’s playoffs, the Oilers split icetime fairly evenly across their three pairings. All three come with a degree of risk, but afford each other more focused usage.
There is some speculation, again, that Broberg is ready for full time action, but just as likely a Broberg-Ceci pair could supplant Kulak-Ceci as the de-facto second pair.
The Oilers should make similar considerations for the future
Naturally, there will be injuries, unexpected twists and turns, as well as other options that will prevent these projections from coming to fruition.
The main point is, despite the less-than-desired start to the season, the Oilers possess a multitude of in house options in crafting a stronger level of play. From this perspective, it is still too early to get too focused on particular trade needs. The Oilers are close to the cap, and any significant moves might alter the long term outlook of the organisation, meaning that any decisions must be made with a level of assuredness.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire