In choosing to write this, I’m well aware that fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs will come across this article and take aim at my assessment in the comments section. To be honest, that’s part of the reason for writing such a piece. I’m more than curious to see where this debate goes and read the responses from readers who make an argument for and against the Edmonton Oilers when it comes to trying to determine which team has the better group of top-four forwards this season.
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Let’s make one thing clear, I’m certainly not introducing this debate and I’m not digging deep into analytics to come up with a conclusion. This debate has been out there for a while now as Sportsnet’s Tim and Friends posted a tweet that the Oilers responded to, and those posts have led to a back-and-forth among the media and each team’s respective fan bases. So too, if numbers crunchers dug deep, they’re sure to find arguments that lean towards Toronto. Please keep all of that in mind.
The Debate: Toronto or Edmonton’s Top Four?
On the one hand, you have Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander. On the other, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Zach Hyman. It’s an embarrassment of riches regardless of which four you have, but it seems clear to this writer that the Oilers are starting to run away with things and should win the race by a wide margin when the season comes to a close.
Looking at point totals, contracts and the 200-foot game each group plays, Edmonton’s got this one and the answer to Tim and Friends’ question is “Yes, there is a better group than the one in Toronto.”
Reason 1: The Point Production for the Oilers
Calling them the “Big 4”, Tim and Friends tried to suggest Toronto’s core group of forwards has been far and away the best in the league. At the time of that tweet, (December 11th) the Oilers responded, “McDavid, Draisaitl, Hyman & Nugent-Hopkins have 31 more points this season.” Based on simple point production, that gap has widened… significantly.
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The Oilers now have all four forwards in the NHL’s Top 30 for scoring and the group has a total of 196 points. McDavid and Draisaitl are No. 1 and No. 2 and have been for most of the season. In comparison, the Maple Leafs only have Matthews in the Top 15, and their top four total 142 points. Not to mention, the Oilers have 54 more points in only three more total games. It’s not as though anyone in the Maple Leafs’ group has missed significant time.
The Oilers’ top four averages more time on ice per game and while that can be argued as a reason for the extra points, it could also be argued the group led by McDavid and Draisaitl is more important to the team’s overall offense. As you’ll see later on, those extra minutes can be attributed to how much the Oilers’ top four plays when short-handed.
Reason 2: Oilers Have Top-Four On Better Contracts
The subject of cost and salary cap hit was brought up by a number of fans, with many pointing out that the Oilers are paying far less per season for their production from the top four than Toronto is. In Edmonton, those top guys account for $31.625 million of the team’s overall salaries this season. In Toronto, the top four make a combined $40.5 million. In other words, remove Nylander from the mix and Toronto is still paying more than Edmonton.
And, it’s not just this season where the cost for these players comes into play. Edmonton has most of its group locked into to their deals for the foreseeable future, with Draisaitl the first to potentially shake loose at the end of the 2024-25 season. McDavid follows at the end of 2025-26, but Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins are sticking around for some time on team-friendly deals that total only $10.65 million per season. Meanwhile, the Leafs have to deal with contract issues almost immediately.
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Matthews is up for a new deal at the end of the 2023-24 season, Nylander’s deal expires at the same time and Marner comes due the same summer as Draisaitl. The only player locked in is Tavares, and at $11 million per season, there’s been a longstanding debate about how much he’s overpaid when compared to other forwards around the NHL. Frankly, over the next few seasons, Toronto is going to pay a whole lot more than Edmonton for less production.
If we’re to take a look down the road a bit and project where these players will be on their next respective deals, the numbers are pretty even. McDavid will arguably be the highest-paid player in the league, but Matthews won’t be far behind. Marner and Draisaitl will have comparable deals and Nylander is potentially going to price himself right out of Toronto.
Reason 3: The Well-Rounded Game Oilers Forwards Play
Some will say it’s not just about points. That’s true. The best teams win with forwards that can play on both sides of the ice and it’s fair to argue the Oilers have the Leafs there too.
Fans will be debating about who has the best 200-ft game. Oilers supporters will likely argue it’s one of Hyman or Nugent-Hopkins, while Leafs Nation may look at Matthews’ much-improved defensive game or Tavares’s takeaway-per-60 stats and say he’s the best. But, when it comes to playing all situations, the debate leans towards the Oilers.
Every single one of the Oilers’ top four group plays minutes on the penalty kill, with only Draisaitl averaging just under one minute per game. Conversely, only Marner plays for the Leafs in that role. When you look at Matthews, Tavares, and Nylander, Nylander comes in at the highest rate… 0:16 per game.
Fans of both teams are lucky to have either group and if you asked, you might find that both collective fan bases stick with their group in a straight-up trade. But, the Oilers have this one. Bring it on Toronto fans.