Since 2015 when they unexpectedly won the Connor McDavid lottery, the Edmonton Oilers have only gotten two brief tastes of the playoffs. A blown series lead versus the Anaheim Ducks ended things in 2016-17, while bad bounces and lack of scoring depth cut their run short in this year’s wacky preliminary round. Watching the final four teams playing true playoff hockey, it seems obvious that the Oilers aren’t there yet. The puzzle that management needs to solve is how to get there.
Holland Had His Work Cut Out for Him
The previous missteps are well known — poorly thought-out trades by the former management regime, buyouts, no-trade clauses, and top-of-range contract deals pushing them up against the cap, coupled with the seeming inability to develop any sort of homegrown talent past the first round of the draft. General manager Ken Holland inherited the greatest player in the world, as well as a 50-goal scorer, and yet there seems to be no quick route to icing a true championship-calibre team; however, the answer to the team’s difficulties may be staring them right in the face.
McDavid, rightly so, is the highest paid player in the league. In a salary cap world, that could be seen as a disadvantage, even if the average rate for a first-line centre is climbing toward his number. But the truth is that McDavid is worth the money. There are two reasons for this fact. First, and most obvious, is that he is the best player in the game. Second, and this is obvious as well, though maybe not to everyone, is that he can produce league-leading point totals regardless of his linemates.
Leon Draisaitl Will Be okay
Leon Draisaitl is elite. From his second season in the NHL onward, he has produced with virtually anyone. He had immediate chemistry with Taylor Hall, he naturally scored on McDavid’s line, and this season the line of Kailer Yamamoto, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl was consistently amongst the best in the league between Jan. 2020 and the interruption of the regular season.
The simple truth here is that Draisaitl, much like Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, doesn’t need to play with McDavid to help the Oilers win and arguably, by playing them together you are hurting your team’s chances at victory.
McDavid Makes Any Winger Better
Let’s take a look at some other players that have spent significant time on McDavid’s wing. Patrick Maroon came over from the Ducks in 2015-16 in exchange for Martin Gernat and a fourth-round pick. At the time the trade seemed to be a depth move for both clubs, but Maroon clicked with McDavid and ended up taking the first-line spot originally earmarked for Milan Lucic the next season. Potting 27 goals and 42 points that year, plus another 3 goals and 8 points in the playoffs, it seemed the two had unbelievable chemistry. Maroon was the Chris Kunitz to McDavid’s Sidney Crosby.
After the playoff run, hopes were high in the City of Champions. Maroon seemed destined to get 30 goals or more on the top line as the Oilers easily captured the division title and then made another deep playoff run. Of course that isn’t what happened. Maroon moved up and down the lineup, and other players regularly took the prime spot with the world’s greatest player. The names of those players aren’t synonymous with offence (Ty Rattie, Mark Letestu, Jesse Puljujarvi) and yet they all produced. Even Lucic’s numbers got a slight boost when anchoring McDavid.
Maroon was deemed expendable at the deadline and went on to win a Cup in a depth role in St. Louis. Rattie’s worst nightmare came in the form of the hiring of Ken Hitchcock, who had long ago decided he wasn’t an NHLer. Letestu was traded back to the Columbus Blue Jackets and has not approached his 2016-17 numbers since. It seems clear that while McDavid helped these players score, none of them were truly top-line NHL players based on skill alone and that is a fact the Oilers would do well to recognize. McDavid doesn’t need elite linemates such as Leon Draisaitl.
Looking at more recent history, the Oilers played Zack Kassian regularly with McDavid over the past couple seasons and he benefitted greatly, setting career highs in goals and points in 2019-20. While Kassian has speed, and adds some sandpaper to the lineup, he likely won’t repeat the statistics that earned him his four-year extension without significant top-line minutes. If the Oilers are able to get out from under that contract they should do so.
McDavid should play with teammates who would otherwise be classified as middle-six or bottom-six players so long as they have speed and decent hands. More importantly they should be on entry-level or bridge contracts, giving Ken Holland flexibility to spend elsewhere on the roster. From the current roster, pending restricted free agent Andreas Athanasiou looks to fit the bill, so long as he re-signs for a reasonable number. The second line should be made up of the three next best players on the team, which for now is the Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, and Yamamoto grouping.
The Short Playoff Run Was Evidence of What Not To Do
The Oilers lost their preliminary series with Chicago because they fixed something that wasn’t broken when they didn’t use the lineup that had worked so well before the break. The single game the Oilers won was basically a case of McDavid single-handedly outscoring the opponent. Only in the dying minutes of the final game of the series was Draisaitl reunited with his regular season linemates, but by that point it was too late, and the team was out of the playoffs barely a week after they’d begun.
With the world’s best player on your team, and a deadly second line who get to go up against the second best checkers on the opponent’s team night after night, the bottom two lines should hardly matter. Holland can gain assets by playing a particular player on McDavid’s wing and then shipping them off at the trade deadline or during the offseason. He can be confident that the next player his coach assigns to the vacant spot will also produce, probably at a career-high pace. Meanwhile, the assets he brings in can address the real needs of a contending team, defensive depth, goaltending and grit.