Now, almost a month after the NHL trade deadline and the Edmonton Oilers departed with significant assets (notably Tyson Barrie, Jesse Puljujarvi, Reid Schaefer, and their 2023 first-round pick), there is little doubt that the team has greatly improved overall.
A large portion of this improvement came instantly with the addition of Mattias Ekholm, taking the blueline as a whole to a new level. The decorated defensive presence is a much better stylistic compliment to the Oilers blueline, giving Evan Bouchard an optimal partner to come into his own with.
Less obvious is how the addition of Nick Bjugstad changes the Oilers lineup. Granted, as their salaries and acquisition costs show us, Bjugstad’s impact won’t be as pronounced as Ekholm’s. It has also taken a bit longer for Bjugstad to find as defined of a role as Ekholm has. Perhaps the nature of Coach Jay Woodcroft’s style, more willing to experiment with forward lines than defence pairs, as much should be expected.
To understand where Bjugstad might best fit into the Oilers lineup, we will take a look back on how he fit into his former team’s lineup, the Arizona Coyotes, and what options might be available with the Oilers.
Bjugstad’s usage with Coyotes
Once a top prospect, a huge frame with some offensive upside, Bjugstad never quite reached the elite potential some might have hoped for. As his career has progressed, Bjugstad has continued to round out his game and found ways to extend his career. After some tough years of injuries Bjugstad did not have many options but to sign a one-year deal with the Arizona Coyotes at under $1M.
In Arizona, Bjugstad found himself on a consistent line. Before discussing his linemates it should be noted that the circumstances surrounding the Coyotes and the Oilers are quite different, occupying fairly opposite ends of the overall league standings. Naturally, Bjugstad was being relied upon more heavily for the Coyotes than he will for the Oilers, but Bjugstad’s results were quite strong in the desert. Analyst Dom Luszczyszyn posted some predictions for major award winners around the trade deadline, and had Bjugstad grading out extremely well for the Selke Trophy, as seen below.
Bjugstad played a near permanent role on a line centring Lawson Crouse and Mattias Meccilli. Maccelli, a rookie, has done quite well adjusting to the NHL, likely to get a few votes for the Calder Trophy. Maccelli has a counter attacking forward type of style, an effective transition playmaker, speed, agility, and a smart checking game. Maccelli has the makings of a player who will grade well in expected goals and possession metrics.
Crouse, for his part, has developed nicely over the years. He might have taken some flack as a top end prospect, but Crouse is more than just a hulking winger, increasing his effect on play and displaying more of a scoring touch.
Seeing as this has been Bjugstad’s best season, it might make sense to look for some potential linemates throughout the Oilers roster that bring some of the same strengths to the table.
Most likely Oiler linemates for Bjugstad
Two middle six forwards who might fit the Maccelli role, so to speak, nicely are Kailer Yamamoto and Ryan McLeod. Yamamoto would bring an effective support passing game, forechecking ability, and a willingness to battle along the boards. McLeod’s speed and smarts make him a responsible transition defender, and puck carrying attacker through the neutral zone.
Sure, Zach Hyman or Evander Kane would be more than adequate Crouse stand-ins, but their services are required higher in the lineup. Warren Foegele doesn’t have the size or scoring touch, but plays a smart, responsible, and hard nosed game. We have seen Foegele play well on a third line with Bjugstad, but he has fared even better when McLeod is at centre, with the duo posting incredible expected goals shares. Both Klim Kostin and Mattias Janmark bring some of the same elements as Foegele, but not quite at as effective a level.
Building a third line
The Oilers shuffle their forwards to a significant margin, meaning that there is a high likelihood that there will be some degree of mixing and matching within a given game. As Bjugstad has settled into the lineup, he has had the chance to play with most of the Oilers bottom six for short periods of time.
The one combination we have yet to see much of is Bjugstad and the currently injured McLeod, which does have some theoretical promise. Hopefully McLeod can return with enough time to give the duo a chance to share a line together.
One linemate who has produced results far above the rest is Foegele. Janmark seems to be on the opposite end of the spectrum, and though he is an important factor on the penalty kill, it is becoming quite evident that Janmark is best served in a fourth line role at even strength. Janmark is consistent—a trait that his coach is sure to enjoy—which might also cause him to get more looks further up the lineup than ideal.
In the Oilers March 25 game against the Vegas Golden Knights, Bjugstad and Foegele were flanked by Yamamoto and fared quite well. Though a small sample size, it does serve as a sort of proof of concept for the line. Loading up a third line with Bjugstad, Foegele, and one of either Yamamoto or McLeod should give the Oilers a strong checking line. Especially if Woodcroft opts to shorten the bench during the playoffs, or dress 11 forwards and seven defencemen, this third line could be enough to overwhelm opponents when the Oilers top forwards are on the bench.
Bjugstad allows top six flexibility
In all, the Oilers have a clear group of five top forwards: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman, and Evander Kane. The group has more than enough talent to form two elite lines, almost regardless of who occupies the final spot in the top six.
For now the most opportunity has been afforded to Yamamoto. Yamamoto has done alright in this role, but we should not be expecting an influx of production from the winger. Perhaps his being moved to the third line as of late shows us that Woodcroft is searching for answers elsewhere.
Bjugstad himself might be worthy of a look in the top six, at centre or on the wing. His defensive play and ability to handle centre ice duties might make him a valued conscience of responsibility in a top six that features so many players focused on offence. With the exception of McDavid, who has consistently been an above average defender in the past season and a half (and will continue to improve here), the Oilers top forwards could use some balance here.
By this same thought McLeod might be a great fit for the Oilers top six. In particular his speed and attacking game in transition bring an intriguing package to the role. In the past, mostly last season, McLeod has shown some promising chemistry with Draisaitl, somewhat mimicking some of what McDavid brings in complementing Draisaitl’s game.
Looking at the bigger picture
The fact is that Bjugstad affords Woodcroft the opportunity to try a few options, essentially solidifying a top nine. Janmark, Kostin, Derek Ryan, and Devin Shore all bring some talent to the lineup, but barring injuries the Oilers are deep enough to deploy the group more appropriately, as fourth line options.
With Ekholm completely altering the dynamic of the Oilers blueline and Bjugstad solidifying the defensive capabilities of the bottom six, the Oilers are a much improved team, and are peaking at just the right time. Woodcroft has the team rounding into form just in time for the playoffs, or “Game 83” as the coach calls it, where all bets are off. Anything can happen in the playoffs, and with the Oilers facing a capable opponent in a muddy Western Conference—likely the Los Angeles Kings or Vegas Golden Knights—the Oilers, like any team, will need all hands on deck and a bit of luck to move beyond the first round.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire