The 2017-18 edition of the Edmonton Oilers will not be a playoff team. That’s the tough reality facing Peter Chiarelli, Todd McLellan and the rest of the organization as they close out an extremely disappointing season of hockey.
Now that the hope of a postseason berth is nothing more than a distant memory, the Oilers would be smart to utilize their remaining 17 games as a true evaluation period. Players should be giving this final stretch of games a real purpose rather than viewing it as meaningless hockey. The staff, meanwhile, should use this time as an opportunity to experiment with what they have on their roster before tackling the difficult decisions looming in the shadows of the summer ahead.
Among the most important items on the Oilers’ to-do list should be the task of finding the optimal wingers for franchise centre Connor McDavid. It’s been reported that management would like to acquire a winger who can skate with their captain but, before they venture out and spend quality assets for one, they should first be certain that a solution doesn’t already exist in-house.
Time for a Change Around McDavid
The Oilers have tried a variety of wingers with their superstar captain over the course of his three-year career. Some have clicked more than others but they’ve yet to find that elusive perfect match. The truth is that McDavid is talented enough to play with anyone the coaching staff puts out on the ice with him, but the team’s goal should be to maximize their generational talent’s game, not hinder it.
Coach McLellan’s go-to move continues to be placing Leon Draisaitl on McDavid’s right wing but, while there’s no arguing that the talented duo meshes well together on the ice, there’s a flaw in that choice of lineup deployment. The facts are that the German forward makes $8.5 million himself, is better on faceoffs and should be able to carry two wingers of his own at this point in his career.
The two other wingers most commonly found alongside McDavid this season have been Patrick Maroon, who is now in New Jersey, and Milan Lucic, who should simply be playing further down the lineup at this point.
McDavid’s game is all about speed, creativity, and more speed. Why not find two wingers who would best complement these traits?
Left Wing: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
For the longest time, it’s seemed that the professional career of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been all about becoming a better two-way centreman. The 24-year-old hasn’t yet developed into the offensive dynamo he was projected to be when he was drafted with the first overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, but he has successfully put in a lot of work towards becoming a smart and dependable 200-foot player.
Two things that Nugent-Hopkins has going for him are smarts and speed, which just happen to be the two things that would complement McDavid’s game to a T. Strangely enough, the two All-Stars have rarely shared the ice surface in the three years they’ve been teammates.
Nugent-Hopkins has factored more offensive risk into his game this year and was on pace for a career-high 30 goals before a rib injury knocked him out of the lineup. With him having recently returned to the ice, now seems like as good a time as any to give this duo an extended test drive.
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) March 4, 2018
Right Wing: Jesse Puljujarvi
You would need a map to find all of the places that 19-year-old Jesse Puljujarvi has been in the Oilers’ lineup this season. From the first line to the press box to the AHL, Puljujarvi has had a little taste of everything save for the one thing a young player probably needs the most: consistency.
One can only imagine what goes through the head of a speedy 6-foot-4 winger while sitting on the bench and repeatedly watching his coaching staff send slow moving wingers like Lucic and Mike Cammalleri or struggling wingers like Drake Caggiula out on the ice with their lightning-fast captain.
Not only can Puljujarvi skate, but he is good on the forecheck, can retrieve pucks, and loves to shoot. On paper, he has all of the ingredients for an ideal McDavid winger. All he needs is experience and confidence. What better time to get him that experience than the last 17 games of a lost season, and what could be a better confidence boost than getting put on a line next to one of the game’s elite?
Nugent-Hopkins – McDavid – Puljujarvi
Sit back and watch the good times roll.
Mark Bowie covers the Edmonton Oilers and the QMJHL for THW.