Oilers Playing Nugent-Hopkins on Third Line Increases Depth Opportunity

The Edmonton Oilers finally got back into the win column with a victory over the Calgary Flames in a much-anticipated Battle of Alberta. That brings the Oilers to a 4-0-0 record vs. the Flames this season, holding them without a point. They have now scored 18 goals in those games while allowing eight, and Saturday they did it without a number of key players in the lineup.

Related: Oilers’ Power Play Getting Boosts From Bouchard, Puljujarvi & Yamamoto

Zach Hyman is still out for the game against the Vancouver Canucks, but Ryan Nugent-Hopkins looks to make his return and should be centering the third line. The Oilers have had to shuffle the lines in the hopes something will stick and there will be a spark to win them a game and break their slump. This finally happened against Calgary and the lines in practice indicate things are mostly staying the same.

As you can see, the top six are staying the same with Nugent-Hopkins back in the lineup. The top line, centered by Connor McDavid, has tons of speed and playing Ryan McLeod with McDavid gives that line another option to carry the puck up the ice and into the offensive zone, so it’s not so predictable for opponents to defend. The second line all have size and the ability to control the play in the offensive zone and along the boards. Both lines played very well last game, so it is a good decision to keep that the same and try to form more chemistry.

That brings us to the third line. For a while now, especially during the slump, I have said that the Oilers should at least try McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins all at centre. But instead Draisaitl has been moved up to play on McDavid’s wing and Nugent-Hopkins left to centre the second line more often. This may have worked in the past to load up that top line, but if that line is shut down, the Oilers have gotten next to no offence from the rest of the team.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Edmonton Oilers
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Spreading out the top talent on the team will allow the bottom six, or at least the third line to get into the game more and the top lines get a bit more rest. Playing under 10 minutes a night can be very hard for players to get into the game, and then when they do get shifts, they are trying to do a lot more to show they deserve more time. At least for the first half of games, get the lines rolling and get everyone into the game, then if the game is close, shorten the bench.

Perlini Should Get Boost Alongside Nugent-Hopkins

When Brendan Perlini has gotten the chance, he’s shown that his shot can be lethal and that he can be an impactful player in a game. This season, he was sent down to the minors due to his lack of production playing on the fourth line. Part of that issue was he was playing well under 10 minutes a night with less skilled players and expected to be effective in more of a checking/forechecking role when his biggest asset is his shot.

Since being recalled, he has gotten opportunities in the top-six with the injuries and players entering COVID protocol. So, Perlini has gotten time alongside McDavid on the top line and Draisaitl on the second line. Perlini now has four goals on the season, three of which have been scored in the past four games. (from ‘Oilers’ Brendan Perlini: Tallies in win’, CBS Sports, Jan. 23, 2022) With Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman returning to the Oilers’ lineup very soon, it is unrealistic to think that Perlini is going to keep his spot in the top six.

Brendan Perlini Edmonton Oilers
Brendan Perlini, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

By slotting Nugent-Hopkins in on the third line and having Perlini play beside him, it gives Perlini a very good playmaker in a reduced role who will be able to set him up like how he was in the top six. While Perlini and Nugent-Hopkins aren’t necessarily guys who will go into the corners and retrieve pucks, they have Zack Kassian on the other wing to do that.

Future Implications of Nugent-Hopkins Centering His Own Line

This is a forward combination that the Oilers should try out for more than half a game or even one game. It should be something that is given time to get a real picture of because it could greatly impact the future of the forward group in Edmonton.

With Nugent-Hopkins back, he’s not the only one who’s joining the Oilers again soon. Hyman should be good to go next game vs. the Nashville Predators Thursday, and Dylan Holloway has started his pro career off with a bang in the American Hockey League. By the way he’s playing, he’ll be with the Oilers much sooner than anticipated. Meanwhile, the conclusion to the investigation into Evander Kane should be this week. If no suspension is handed out, the Oilers are a top candidate for Kane to come to and that adds yet another impactful player.

If all things come together, Perlini and Kassian will definitely be moved down or out, while McLeod will either be shifted to the wing on the third line or centre the fourth line. With the additions coming and Nugent-Hopkins a natural centerman, there’s no logical way that they can keep him on the wing. A better solution would be to get him a winger who is a bit better on the draw or really works on faceoffs as a top priority. That’s the one knock on him as a centerman, but unlike the top two lines, he can lead a line that is more defensively responsible while also having the ability to create chances and score.

Time and opportunity will tell if utilizing Nugent-Hopkins on the third line will have a positive effect on the Oilers, but all signs say it should.

Morning Skate newsletter Click To Subscribe