Team Canada has sent a star-studded lineup to the Olympics since the NHL first allowed their players to participate in Nagano in 1998. Since then, they’ve won the gold medal three times, in 2002, 2010 and 2014. However, the NHL didn’t allow their players to participate in the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, so there’s a build-up of excitement for this year’s tournament when they will return.
The thought of having Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby — both generational superstars — on Team Canada for the first time is exhilarating. Still, the Olympics aren’t meant to be an All-Star Game, and each country has to build a real team. Scorers, penalty killers, power-play specialists, grinders are all essential to creating a winning team, and it’s a bonus if those players have already developed chemistry playing together.
McDavid will arguably be the main offensive catalyst for Team Canada. This season, he’s on pace for 171 points and leads the NHL’s best power play, so expect to see him on Canada’s first line and the man advantage. The question is, given the star power at the team’s disposal, who will be his linemates? The Edmonton Oilers are off to their best start in franchise history, so McDavid could centre a line with two of his teammates.
McDavid & Nugent-Hopkins Linemates in 2018-2019
I’ve mentioned before that chemistry between players in a short tournament like the Olympics is extremely important. With so few games, coaches don’t have the luxury to “see” if players will click. In 2010, Team Canada selected a trio of San Jose Sharks to play on the same line — Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley. The “Shark Line” averaged a goal and assist per game, helping Canada win the gold medal (from, ESP on Ice: When NHL Teammates Become Olympic Teammates,” The Atlantic, 02/12/14).
McDavid has established chemistry with two of his teammates, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman. Nugent-Hopkins is a utility player who plays in all situations. He can play both centre and on the wing, and more importantly, he’s produced on a line with the Oilers’ captain. No. 93 was McDavid’s most consistent winger in 2018-2019 and had the best offensive output of his career with 69 points in 82 games, while McDavid also put up the most points in a season with 116 in 78 games.
This season, they’re on pace for the highest totals of their career – Nugent-Hopkins is on pace for 104 points. Some might argue that there are better players suited for Team Canada than Nugent-Hopkins; however, he is statistically one of the best players in the NHL at the moment, ranked 13th in league scoring.
McDavid & Zach Hyman Have Shown Early Chemistry
Zach Hyman, who signed with the Oilers as a free agent during the offseason, has fit in nicely. He has played on McDavid’s wing when the captain isn’t with Leon Draisaitl, and they had chemistry from the get-go. Hyman understands his role: retrieve the puck, pass it to McDavid and get open. Against the Vegas Golden Knights on Oct. 22, Hyman drove the puck to the net, McDavid picked it up, passed it to an open Hyman, who buried it past goaltender Robin Lehner.
Hyman is on pace for his most productive season with 10 points in 11 games, but his game is not only about point production. It’s about the intangibles he brings to the team. His effort is limitless, and he has that combination of skill and sandpaper that was highly coveted by the Oilers. He would be a solid candidate to fill the skilled grinder role for Team Canada, one that has previously been filled by Ryan Smyth (2002), Kris Draper (2006), and Brendan Morrow (2010) at the Olympics.
Team Canada Could Feature 3 Players From NHL’s Best Power Play
The Oilers have had the best power play in the NHL the last two seasons, and they’re on pace to do it again with a 47% efficiency rate. With McDavid, Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins, Team Canada would have three of the five players who are scoring on almost half their power-play chances.
Even when Hyman is not producing power-play points, he’s been an excellent net-front presence. Against the New York Rangers on Nov. 5, he was a vital part of the team’s third-period comeback to win 6-5 in overtime. McDavid dropped a pass to Tyson Barrie, and Hyman timed a textbook screen in front of goaltender Alexander Georgiev for a crucial goal.
If the Oilers’ power play stays hot leading up to the Beijing Olympics, Team Canada’s general manager Doug Armstrong should at least consider having this trio for the man advantage. They know each other’s tendencies, and they can run set plays. Cale Makar (Colorado Avalanche) would be a good replacement for Barrie as the right-shot defenseman on this unit, and Crosby would be a good fit to fill Draisaitl’s role for taking one-timers on the off-wing.
Nugent-Hopkins & Hyman Can Help the Penalty Kill
The Oilers rank sixth in penalty killing with an 87% success rate, and both Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins are integral to this unit, averaging around two minutes per game. Not only could they help Team Canada on the penalty kill, but they would also be a scoring threat; together, they have 11 shorthanded goals in their career and have already combined for a shorthanded marker this season. Against the Arizona Coyotes on Oct. 21, Nugent-Hopkins picked up a loose puck on a broken play, feathered a pass off the boards to Hyman, who buried one past goaltender Karel Vejmelka.
A successful Olympic team needs a combination of skillsets; scorers are essential, but so are hardworking players with grit who have established chemistry. Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman can provide that, playing on a line with McDavid with No. 93 on the left and No. 18 on the right. Of course, Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman would have to be on Team Canada’s long list, but if so, Armstrong could replicate the “Shark Line” with a newly formed “Oiler Line” to help Team Canada recapture the gold medal.
First ever Ultimate MVP fan of the NHL as declared by Upperdeck – CBC Radio Oilers’ Fan Panel Analyst – Freelance Writer. Edmonton Oilers’ Sportswriter for the Hockey Writers.