Oilers’ Deep Down the Middle with Draisaitl, McDavid & Nugent-Hopkins

The Edmonton Oilers head into the All-Star break with a 5-3 victory over the Washington Capitals. Sure, the Capitals were without Alex Ovechkin, but they still had the firepower to take over the game at any moment. Edmonton scored three of its goals in the opening minutes, and scored the rest — including the game winner — with only a few minutes remaining in the game.

Washington clawed back to tie the game, but it wasn’t a cakewalk, with the shots still close (26-27) in favour of the home team. In previous scenarios, the Oilers would self destruct and let the game completely slip away. Yet, it was a different story against the Capitals. They weren’t able to convert until the end of the game, but they were able to trade punches with Washington’s high-octane offense all game — largely due to the newly formed trio at centre of Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Being strong down the middle is important, it’s the backbone of every line, and the Oilers showed what rolling three effective scoring lines could do against a top team like the Capitals. Edmonton has the luxury of having one of the deepest trios at centre in the NHL, and they need to use it to their advantage to make a strong push for the playoffs.

Oilers Can Replicate the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Blueprint to Success

The Pittsburgh Penguins are a team in recent memory that translated their strong centre depth into Stanley Cup success. In 2009 they willed their way to victory with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal down the middle, and the trio was unmatched by any team. In 2016 and 2017 they won back-to-back championships, with Crosby, Malkin and Nick Bonino as their centre pivots. Bonino may not be as highly regarded as Staal, but he’s been a respectable centre throughout his career with the ability to produce offensively.

Sidney Crosby Connor McDavid
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby gets off a backhand pass with Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid defending (THE CANADIAN PRESS/ AP/Gene J. Puskar)

The Oilers have been 2/3 complete to mimic the Penguins’ recipe of success, but they’ve been on a never-ending quest to fill the third line centre spot behind McDavid and Draisaitl. Many have tried — David Desharnais, Gaaten Haas, Jujhar Khaira, Sam Gagner, Kyle Turris —  but most couldn’t quite fit the bill. Back in 2017, it seemed like the Oilers had finally found their man in Ryan Strome after a 34 point campaign, but he was infamously traded for Ryan Spooner, by then-general manager Peter Chiarelli, in a last-ditch desperation move to save his job.

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Derek Ryan was signed this past summer with the hope of centering the third line this season, but he wasn’t able to fill the role. Ryan McLeod — who is the third line centre of the future — has done an adequate job down the middle, but is still too raw to be a consistent offensive threat. When the Oilers started their losing woes last December, head coach Dave Tippett experimented with different line combinations, with McLeod still filling the 3C spot. I wrote an article on Dec. 10 suggesting Nugent-Hopkins should drop down to centre the third line to balance their attack and spark the team’s offense.

Still, Tippett opted to load up the top six. If McDavid or Draisaitl’s line (with Nugent-Hopkins on it) weren’t able to get on the scoreboard, opposing teams had a near-guaranteed win in the palm of their hands — due to lack of offensive production from the bottom six. Yet, after going 5-14 since then, here we are with the “three-headed monster” of Draisaitl, McDavid, and Nugent-Hopkins down the middle, and the team has netted five out of a possible six points since its inception.

Nugent-Hopkins’ Line Will Face Favourable Matchups

The team has had a polarizing first half of the season — from sitting atop of the Western Conference, to being out of a playoff spot in a matter of a month and a half. But the addition of Evander Kane has been immense. Not only did his signing provide a legitimate top-six threat to line up next to the Oilers’ captain, but it was the catalyst that created enough depth on the wing to allow Nugent-Hopkins to centre his own line. Since then, the centreman from Burnaby, BC has tallied three goals and two assists in three games.

When opposing teams look at the pregame plan, they undoubtedly have McDavid and Draisaitl’s lines circled as the main threats to key in on, and match up to their top-four defenders against. Nugent-Hopkins’ line will be the “X-Factor.” They’ll benefit from facing other team’s third defense pairings, while him and line mate Zach Hyman — and their top-six skills — should have a significant advantage over less skilled players.

The pair have shown great chemistry 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill together. In their last three games as linemates, they’ve combined for 10 points, including the game-winner on a shorthanded marker with four minutes left in the game against the Capitals.

The Oilers Will Have to Balance the Ice Time Between the Lines

Ice time will have to be distributed accordingly in order to have three effective scoring lines. An argument can be made that it lessens time on ice for the two former Hart Trophy winners. While that’s true, it also can be a positive. Draisaitl (22:53) and McDavid (22:40) lead NHL forwards in ice time, and in segments over the last stretch, they’ve looked fatigued.

Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl
Edmonton Oilers Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl take part in training camp. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

When the game went into overtime against the Ottawa Senators on Jan. 31, the dynamic duo struggled to keep up to pace. They looked sluggish and a step behind, resulting in a 3-2 loss. Still, it appears a redistribution of ice time is a change Draisaitl is ready for, saying in a media availability session before the game against the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 29:

As the team gets ready for a playoff push, limiting the duo’s ice time to around 18 minutes a game might be beneficial for them, especially having to play 40 games in the next two and a half months. At the same time, even with a slight reduction in ice time, they’ve proven they can still put up points. In the last three games with Nugent-Hopkins down the middle— the Captain has scored two goals and Draisaitl has tallied four points.

Related: 3 Takeaways As Oilers Extend Point Streak With 5-3 Win Over Capitals

The trade deadline is over a month and a half away. With Mikko Koskinen’s inconsistencies, and Mike Smith’s inability to stay healthy, the hope is that general manager Ken Holland is working the phone lines and has another ace up his sleeve to acquire a new goaltender. With their deep depth down the middle, and if Edmonton can add a solid defender, they’ll be primed to make a solid playoff push and even a prolonged playoff run.

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