With just over a week until the start of training camp on July 10, Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett surely has an inkling of how his lineup will look when the puck drops for Game 1 of the qualifying round.
One line that shouldn’t be touched is the Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto unit. They were the most dangerous scoring line in the NHL in the season’s second half, combining for an outstanding 116 points in 30 games (3.87 points-per-game).
While the Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins and Yamamoto line should virtually be set in stone, Tippett still has plenty of decisions to make before the Oilers face the Chicago Blackhawks in the play-in round. Chief among them will be finding Connor McDavid’s linemates.
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I think Zack Kassian is a safe bet to at least start on McDavid’s right side. Kassian’s combination of speed, size and toughness as well as existing chemistry with McDavid bodes well for his chances to start on the first line.
Here are three left-wing options to play with McDavid in the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs.
After a disappointing 2018-19 campaign with the Calgary Flames, James Neal rebounded with a solid first season in Edmonton. Neal had 19 goals and 31 points in 55 games in 2019-20, including a four-goal game and another hat trick. If not for a nagging foot injury that kept him out of action for 16 games, Neal likely would have recorded his 11th 20-goal season in the NHL.
Neal, who is known for being a streaky scorer, rocketed out of the gate with an impressive 11 goals in 14 games in October. However, he only had five markers in the following 27 games, before scoring a hat trick on New Year’s Eve. The 32-year-old was then held without a goal in his final 13 games this season.
Neal is only an average skater, so he’s not the best possible fit to flank the fastest skater in the world. Still, his natural goal-scoring ability keeps him on the shortlist of names to play with McDavid, especially if he gets on a hot streak. In addition, McDavid assisted on nine of Neal’s 19 goals this season.
On a team with little playoff experience, I think Tippett will look to give his veteran scoring winger an opportunity to play a key role. Neal has played in 104 career playoff games, and this is the 10th consecutive season his team has qualified for the postseason. While he isn’t a lock to stay on the first line, I wouldn’t be shocked if he started there.
In an effort to bolster the Oilers’ offence before the playoffs, general manager Ken Holland traded a pair of second-round picks in 2020 and 2021 to the Detroit Red Wings for Andreas Athanasiou at the trade deadline. This is a player Holland knows well. He drafted Athanasiou back in 2012 and has closely followed his entire NHL career.
Athanasiou left the last-place Red Wings and joined a surging Oilers club, where he was immediately put on the first line with McDavid. Athanasiou had a goal and an assist in his Oilers debut, but he was moved down the lineup shortly thereafter when his play began to drop off.
The 25-year-old had 11 goals and 26 points in 55 games in 2019-20, including two points in nine games with the Oilers. He clearly needed more time to adjust to his new team and new situation, and dealing with a lower-body injury didn’t help. With the benefit of having a training camp ahead of the 2020 playoffs, Athanasiou will have the time to develop chemistry with his new teammates.
Athanasiou is among the fastest skaters in the NHL and scored 30 goals in 2018-19, which makes him an ideal player to play with McDavid. A unit of McDavid, Kassian and Athanasiou would instantly become the fastest line in the NHL, and likely create better matchups for the Draisaitl line. He was brought in to play an important role, and I believe Athanasiou is the front-runner to play on McDavid’s left side.
Like Athanasiou, Tyler Ennis was also picked up by the Oilers at the trade deadline. After spending the majority of the season with the struggling Ottawa Senators, Ennis relished the opportunity to play for his hometown team and compete for a playoff spot.
On the surface, the trade looked like an easy win for Edmonton. Ennis notched a goal and an assist in his first game with the Oilers, which will likely be more than the fifth-round pick Holland gave up to get him will ever score in the NHL.
The 30-year-old had 16 goals and 37 points in 70 games in 2019-20, including four points in nine games with the Oilers. Ennis showed well with McDavid in a small sample size, and Tippett might want to give those two a longer look together. He has the hands and quickness to play with a player of McDavid’s ilk. But if Athanasiou’s blazing speed wins him the job, then Ennis could add some skill to the bottom-six.
Related: Oilers Add More Depth with Ennis
Ennis can also play all three forward positions, which allows Tippett to play him with McDavid and Athanasiou if Kassian goes cold. In addition, Ennis is playing for a new contract, so I expect him to be a reliable performer in the playoffs.