Oilers Inexplicably Move Zach Hyman Off Top Line Ahead of NHL Opener

It didn’t even take a single game before fans started wondering what exactly head coach Dave Tippett was doing with his roster. The Edmonton Oilers signed big-ticket free agent Zach Hyman to a seven-year contract and many believed the plan was to put him with a player like Connor McDavid so he could dig up loose pucks and retrieve them on a regular basis. Not only that, but Hyman was to be the perfect complimentary piece for the star players on the team, as he’d had experience in that role in Toronto. Apparently, that’s not in Tippett’s early game plan.

While Hyman isn’t playing with ineffective players, the Edmonton-based media is tweeting out the projected starting lineup for the Oilers game against the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night, and Hyman is slotted in beside Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto. Meanwhile, Leon Draisaitl and McDavid will play with Jesse Puljujarvi.

Tippett Going Back to the Well

Yes, it’s only one game. Yes, this could change throughout the night. Still, this just screams Tippett going back to a formula he often defaults to. Despite the fact this is the deepest team the Oilers have iced in years and the organization had a strong preseason, Tippett is going with his one-two punch of Draisaitl and McDavid on the top line.

It’s a great duo and the most productive in the NHL. But why?

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

Leon and Connor will get plenty of ice time together throughout any given game. They’ll be on the same power-play unit, they’ll be paired up if the Oilers are trying to apply pressure in a close game and they’ll be slotted on the same line if someone isn’t going as well as the coach would like. Putting them together for the opening game of the season creates an issue where the Oilers didn’t really have one.

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The points will come for McDavid and Draisaitl whether they play together or not. The additions to Edmonton’s top-six this summer and the pieces the team added that seem to fit like a glove were meant to fit while McDavid and Draisaitl drove their own lines. The Oilers aren’t nearly as dangerous top-to-bottom with this lineup as is.

The Second Line Isn’t as Effective Now

It’s become evident that Nugent-Hopkins is a better winger than he is a center. He’s not a bad center, but when you have Draisaitl and McDavid as your one-two punch down the middle, Nugent-Hopkins is a nice asset to have at your disposal and one that can be used in multiple situations. Having him center the second line makes the Oilers’ attack less potent and it puts two players out of their more productive positions.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Oilers
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers, Oct. 21, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Moving Nugent-Hopkins back to center and Draisaitl back to the wing makes sense if the lines aren’t going, not before. There’s also been no evident chemistry between Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman. It’s still early and this new second-line trio could play quite well together, but it’s a risk and an unnecessary one. The combination of Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins and Yamamoto is one that works. In fact, it’s a line that almost needed to be together to ensure Nugent-Hopkins and Yamamoto got off to a strong start.

Hyman Needs a Star to Play With

One of the reasons the Oilers signed Hyman is because he’s effective in multiple roles. With that in mind, I’m not arguing he won’t find a way to be useful and productive. Unfortunately, the Oilers need him to be more than useful and productive. The big-ticket contract he signed means he needs to take a step offensively.

Zach Hyman, Edmonton Oilers
Zach Hyman, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

The best way Hyman was going to do that was by playing with McDavid or Draisaitl. Now that he’s with neither, the garbage points that were sure to be piled up aren’t going to be as easy to come by and it won’t be as easy for him to do what he was effectively signed to do. Edmonton is looking for Hyman to score at least 50 points. They need him to drive the net, create room for the stars to fly around and he can’t do that if he’s not playing with them.

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It’s early and some will argue Hyman didn’t show much in the preseason, but this feels like a mistake. The silver lining here is that it is great news for Jesse Puljujarvi…