With teams in the Western Conference wild card race sputtering, the Edmonton Oilers playoff qualification hardly seems in jeopardy. The Oilers have continued to improve throughout the season, a fact that has many fans unconcerned with playoff qualification, looking to the beyond of potential playoff scenarios, hypotheticals on hypotheticals.
The players, and coaches are likely more dialled in on the present, as they should be. Perhaps lineup decisions might be made a few weeks from now, when more playoff seeds are locked in. Ultimately, the noise outside the team is secondary to the Oilers abilities themselves. As the dust from the trade deadline settles and the playoffs loom closer, the Oilers have 14 games left to find their ideal lineup before the 2022–23 playoffs are underway.
Coach Woodcroft can shake things up
Over his tenure as Oilers coach, we have seen some clear tendencies from Jay Woodcroft. He is not afraid to mix things up when it comes to his forwards. Whether it’s deploying Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl together on a shift-to-shift basis, or intentionally dressing 11 forwards in a game long mix and match, Woodcroft isn’t afraid to experiment.
Especially in the playoffs, this flexibility is a strength in itself. Depending on the opponent, there might be tactical advantages to loading up a line, spreading the depth more evenly, or locking into a line match.
By contrast, Woodcroft seems happiest to maintain some consistency in his defence pairings. Although tweaks and changes are inevitable, it’s clear that these adjustments are taken slower and more deliberately than the rotation that is applied to the forwards. Though a switch or two will be necessary along the way, fans shouldn’t expect as much fluidity from the blueline.
Let’s look at how certain lines and pairing have performed with expected goals stats before breaking down the minutiae of how the Oilers lineup has been deployed, exploring on what options might be worth exploring, before putting together an outside the box lineup idea.
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The current forwards combo
When breaking down the Oilers forward group over the past seven or so years the analysis has begun with McDavid, with Draisaitl not too far behind. In truth the Oilers have five top line level forwards that form a sort of breakaway group when it comes to icetime.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins finds himself in the top ten of scoring league-wide, joining Zach Hyman, not to mention McDavid, in setting new career highs. Evander Kane, finally healthy, rounding out the group that has a wide variety of skills as a whole.
Hyman and McDavid have been so strong together that it might be worth committing to, though both will excel regardless. The combination of Draisaitl and Kane, meanwhile, has not performed well in our dataset. Both players are far more adept towards scoring goals than preventing them, but to be fair Kane’s injury riddled season hasn’t given us much to evaluate.
Naturally, any deployment of these five is a great start to a lineup, but it might be spreading things too thin to any of them on a line without at least one other member of the group.
Kailer Yamamoto is in his own stratosphere of icetime, behind the top group as much as he is ahead of the group below. More than any other player, at least for the time being, Yamamoto moves between top six and bottom six roles.
The addition of Nick Bjugstad adds some spice to the Oilers group here. He provides strong defensive play and positional versatility that is a theme of the bottom six as a whole. Ryan McLeod, Derek Ryan, Mattias Janmark, and Devin Shore all have some experience playing centre.
Bjugstad, McLeod, and Warren Foegele might be a cut above their cohorts in the Oilers bottom six, perhaps worthy of being called third liners, while Klim Kostin, Janmark, and to an extent Shore might be fourth liners.
For now, the line of Shore, McLeod, and Ryan has shown exceptional chemistry, playing with synergy and outperforming the sum of its parts. Perhaps this level of play is unsustainable, but it does make sense to let the line run its course. The sample is still small, but they have held up in what amounts to third line usage.
What could be
Yamamoto has clearly had a positive effect on most of the lines in our dataset, especially defensively. He has some slick puck skills, but is more of a battler than a point producer, doing the dirty work with a certain reckless abandon. As such Yamamoto’s being in the top six is hardly a sure thing, perhaps another forward is deserving of a shot in such a role.
McLeod has done well as a winger for Draisaitl in the past. In particular, McLeod’s speed helps open a lot of ice for Draisaitl, especially in both offensive and defensive transitions. Draisaitl certainly appreciates some defensive contributions from linemates, and as a centre McLeod can provide more than most in this regard. McLeod has enough playmaking skills to help Draisaitl gain the offensive zone and to set him up for shot attempts.
Meanwhile, Bjugstad is up to 15 goals on the year. His contributions here are noteworthy, but truth be told his defensive impact might be even greater. The Oilers top forwards aren’t exactly renowned for their defensive impacts and might really appreciate the help from a responsible veteran who can play centre.
Immediately what jumps out in these stats is the dominant performance of some lines that feature both Foegele and McLeod. While it might be ambitious to think that their results with Janmark will continue to scale congruently, it might also be optimistic to think that Yamamoto won’t be needed higher up in the lineup.
Regardless, the bigger issue at play here is if Woodcroft wants to commit to a dedicated third line–a group that can be trusted to handle any opponents that they match up against. Bjugstad would add size, grit, experience, defensive prowess, faceoff ability, and a level of skill to a combination of Foegele and McLeod that has produced two of the top three defensive results in our dataset by xGA.
For the time being Bjugstad has taken the spot in the middle of Foegele and Janmark, but swapping Janmark for McLeod might give the line more quality. McLeod deserves a top nine role on this team, but for now his work with Ryan and Shore has been stellar. This might be similar to the way that Nugent-Hopkins deserves to be in the top six even if a move to the wing is needed to facilitate that.
Kostin has had some shifts with Nugent-Hopkins, and does profile similarly to wingers that RNH has gotten the most out of in the past, along with Janmark. The three haven’t fared too well together, and frankly Kostin might have already played his best hockey as an Oiler, scoring at an inflated rate early on. Woodcroft’s icetime allotment tells us what we need to know, though Kostin not being a factor on special teams certainly decreases his icetime as well. Janmark is a key member of the penalty kill, which likely ensures him a lineup spot, and does inflate his icetime.
Nugent-Hopkins is better served higher in the lineup, luckily, Derek Ryan is a smart centre that appreciates size on the wings as well. Janmark, Ryan, and Kostin might have some magic as a fourth line together thanks to their blend of skills.
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Current blueline set up
Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci are the most used pair, and also the worst performing pair of our dataset. It should be noted that they have the toughest usage, and are still only slightly below 50% in expected goals. Despite a tough offseason of rehab, Nurse’s contract is enough of a focus that every mistake is magnified. Just this weekend Nurse was named the first star of a huge comeback win against the Boston Bruins, meanwhile being outvoted by Mattias Ekholm in a landslide in our Sunday Census article that polled fans on who the Oilers best defenceman was. Ceci is hardly thought of as a legitimate top pair defenceman league-wide, yet has done admirably filling in as such in his time as an Oiler.
Ideally the new pair of Ekholm and Evan Bouchard can at least lighten the load, perhaps enough to make them the top pair over Nurse and Ceci. Best case scenario for the Oilers is that it becomes a tough question to answer, which pair is better, a great problem to have. The trade for Ekholm and the development of Bouchard is what has made this happen, a key progression for an Oilers team that has improved as the season has gone.
Brett Kulak and Vincent Desharnais have posted outstanding numbers together, though these have all come fairly recently, when the Oilers have been dominant in general. This gives some hope that both a Philip Broberg-Desharnais pairing and a Kulak-Ceci pairing might be viable. Either way, the Oilers have seven legitimate contributors on the backend, even if Broberg’s usage has dwindled recently.
What could be
Simply by minutes played, the biggest change that could be made is with the top pair. Although the expected goals metric in our dataset grades poorly for the current Nurse-Ceci duo, evaluating performance is not quite as simple as any one number. With any statistic it is most important to contextualise, to understand how to apply some deductive reasoning.
It might be fair to say that Nurse plays too many minutes, and can contribute in any phase of the game. This two-way reputation might overstate his defensive impacts. He is not in the same class as Ekholm in this area, though he has continually sacrificed his more natural potential on the power play time for a main penalty kill and shutdown role instead. As such, Nurse appreciates a strong defender as a partner. While Ceci has a lot of the raw tools required, Ekholm is on another level when it comes to reading the play and affecting possession.
The best pair the Oilers could throw together would involve Ekholm switching sides. When he was first acquired there was much made with his ability and willingness to do so, acknowledged by Ekholm himself. Nurse and Ekholm would be a strong enough pair to match up against anyone. It is certainly understandable to spread the wealth, but the time may come where the Oilers will need a spark.
Luckily, in such a case, the Oilers have some previous options with track records of success. Broberg and Bouchard posted outstanding numbers together, though they were more sheltered minutes than Woodcroft seems ready to deploy Bouchard in. Broberg is young and inexperienced, mistakes will be made, and that might be scaring the Oilers out of dressing him as they jostle for playoff seeding. Broberg is trending in a very promising trajectory, and the time might be now to find out how much he can handle.
Kulak has been much better with Desharnais than he has with Ceci, but the context of these minutes matters. Ceci is still the option. Presumably, if Ekholm switches to the right side it might decrease the need for Desharnais, though his presence on the penalty kill would be missed. Seven defencemen isn’t ideal for most teams, but the circumstances of the Oilers lineup makes it a worthwhile consideration.
Broberg switches sides?
If Woodcroft sticks to his defence pairs, which would seem to be his preference, a smaller change would involve asking Broberg to play the right. There have been rumblings, at the musings that Broberg is willing and able to do so. That said, it seems like it might be a bit much to throw the rookie into deep waters.
At the very least Broberg would figure to have a strong partner, likely Kulak. Both defenders bring some similar elements to the table, and Broberg has done nothing but show us that he might be just as, if not more, effective at this moment of time.
Apart from playing his weak side, Broberg would be relied on for a different role than he has been while paired with Bouchard. In many ways the Broberg-Bouchard pairing was a test of both young players’ ability to hold up defensively without a veteran teammate to rely on. They passed with flying colours, a fact that has seen one promoted and the other in the press box.
With Kulak, or perhaps even Ceci, Broberg would be forced to prove he can handle primary puck handling duties. As a prospect, Broberg has the tools to have success in such a role bearing an overall stylistic resemblance to Nurse. Both are fast enough to skate with anyone, strong enough to battle anyone during in-zone coverage, smart enough to contribute on both special teams, and skilled enough to contribute in transition as a carrier or a passer. Time will tell if Broberg is able to reach the heights that Nurse has, but if the Oilers give Broberg a chance to prove himself in this role, it would show us that level of ceiling is there.
Mock lineup for the Oilers
Using some of the ideas in this piece we will look at a mock lineup. Surely, many fans will have their own wrinkles they would like to see, and life is more unpredictable than we might ever know.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire