Oilers Need an Early Season Line Shuffle to Address Issues

The Edmonton Oilers are only two games into the 2022-23 season and are 1-1-0. It’s not the time to panic, but the lines they have at forward and the pairings on defence aren’t what we saw in the preseason and aren’t working to maximum efficiency. Due to a couple of forwards being out in the first game and a lot of early-season adjustments mid-game, lines have been scrambled and it has cost the team a few goals at the very least.

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The Oilers’ five-on-five play has not been great which is the reason to make a change. Reverting back to the preseason lines should help move things in the right direction. In the first two games, they have been outscored 5-3 at five-on-five, and the power play has carried the offence. That may not seem like a big difference, but it extends beyond just the score. The opponents are getting high-danger scoring chances and lots of shots, resulting in the early goals against thus far. Better communication, which comes with chemistry, and tighter defensive play can make a significant difference.

How the Oilers’ Forward Lines Have Changed From Preseason

Before we get into the lines, a few performances in the preseason have made decisions tougher for the coaching staff. Jesse Puljujarvi and Warren Foegele had a strong preseason and they made cases for more playing time. It was originally expected that Puljujarvi would be playing in the middle six while Foegele would play on the fourth line. That hasn’t been the case as Puljujarvi has been on Connor McDavid’s wing and Foegele lined up on the third line in his first game of the season against the Calgary Flames.

Jesse Puljujarvi Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers
Jesse Puljujarvi, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rookie Dylan Holloway of course made the Oilers and was initially going to see time on the second line alongside Leon Draisaitl. That quickly changed after one mistake against the Canucks. Sure, they are currently seeing some old linemates reunited, but the lines that they ran late last season and during the preseason were working just fine. Here’s a look at what the current lines look like at forward:

Zach Hyman – Connor McDavid – Jesse Puljujarvi

Evander Kane – Leon Draisaitl – Kailer Yamamoto

Dylan Holloway – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Warren Foegele

Brad Malone – Ryan McLeod – Derek Ryan

Now here’s what was working and what the Oilers should go back to for their third game:

Evander Kane – Connor McDavid – Kailer Yamamoto

Dylan Holloway – Leon Draisaitl – Zach Hyman

Ryan McLeod – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Jesse Puljujarvi

Warren Foegele – Brad Malone – Derek Ryan

What really stands out to me is why Kane isn’t on McDavid’s wing. They were incredible together during the second half of last season and during the playoffs. McDavid had a scoring winger who could finish plays and it allowed Draisaitl to run his own line since he was always that scoring winger when the Oilers needed it. Draisaitl is an elite passer which some may forget since he’s a two-time 50-goal scorer, but the Oilers are deep on the wing and at centre and have wingers who have better chemistry with the German centre than Kane. Though McDavid and Draisaitl have the best chemistry on the team, the next best combo is McDavid and Kane. There’s no logical reason I can think of to split the two up after all they’ve done together in such a short time.

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One thing to keep in mind too is that even though a winger like Puljujarvi is on the first line, he’s played just over 12 minutes per game so far and Holloway, who’s on the third line, has played just over eight minutes per game. On the other side of things, Nugent-Hopkins has logged an average of 19:34 per game on the third line. Not only do special teams players get a lot more ice time with this Oilers team, the lines mix and match so that the top guys double-shift.

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Holloway had an amazing preseason, and after the rookie made one mistake, his ice time and role gets cut significantly? That shouldn’t happen. The Oilers need to keep his confidence high. Though he is still on a line capable of scoring, the coaching staff can get him and the second line going by reuniting him with Draisaitl.

Dylan Holloway Edmonton Oilers
Dylan Holloway, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

As for Yamamoto, I’m not against him playing on either of the top two lines. He has shown chemistry with both McDavid and Draisaitl before and each of the centermen has said they like playing with him. He played very well in his short stint on the top line last season and it is definitely a reason to play him there more this season. I’m also not against Hyman playing on either of the top two lines as he has the speed, scoring, and puck-retrieving ability to mesh with both of the Oilers’ stars. He was very good on the top line to start last season, but also dominant in the playoffs on the second line.

It’s early in the season and the team has options. But the Oilers shouldn’t have strayed so quickly away from what they know has worked in the past.

Oilers’ Defence Needs a Re-work

The most consistent and solid pair early this season for the Oilers has been Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci. They are the top pair and are relied upon to eat minutes, shut down opponents, and add some offence. They have done all of that, even getting a goal from each of them in the first two games.

The issue has been the rest of the defence. Evan Bouchard is still learning and developing, but his defence isn’t very good. The hope and expectation was that he’d be paired with Brett Kulak and it would benefit the young defenceman greatly like it did Tyson Barrie last season. Instead of letting things play out, the Oilers very quickly went back to the Barrie/Kulak duo and left Bouchard to play less, drop to the third pair, and be paired with Ryan Murray. This duo was each minus-3 in the first period against the Flames. Even though putting up points is important, defending is equally as important, and that pair hasn’t provided the Oilers with a lot of confidence in that department so far.

Evan Bouchard. Edmonton Oilers
Evan Bouchard, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

What I’m suggesting is a different approach. Bouchard is young and needs to be in a position to succeed. He can’t take a step back after last season’s strong performance. He put up 12 goals, and 43 points, was a plus-10, blocked 112 shots, and played nearly 20 minutes a game. This season he doesn’t have a point is a minus-4, is playing four minutes less, and has no blocked shots. It’s an early concern, but one that can be worked through. Instead of just playing Bouchard less and with a partner he clearly doesn’t have chemistry with, have him and Barrie split time playing with Kulak. Each of them can have their game positively impacted by him. Murray was brought in as the sixth, likely seventh defenceman for the team, so even though he’s played alright, he shouldn’t be matching Bouchard’s ice time (from “Edmonton Oilers breaking down the breakdowns”, Edmonton Sun, Oct. 13, 2022).

As I said, there’s no need to panic. The Oilers fought back in both of their games and played a very tough opponent in the Flames. It has been just two games, but if the lines are going to be shuffled around, they need to do it right.

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