Ken Hitchcock did something on Sunday. After an embarrassing loss to the LA Kings on Saturday night, Hitch adjusted his lineup to feature Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on different lines. His big three centers all got their own line, and the results were strong; a 4-0 victory over the rival Ducks to bring the club within two points of a playoff spot.
Interestingly enough, I’d argue that the Oil’s best two games in this last losing stretch have been when they have had the three centers on different lines. They played well, although in a losing effort, on New Year’s Eve against the Jets. I thought they played a helluva lot better last night than in any other game minus the Jets tilt.
The three center approach gives Edmonton a unique advantage. They have the best player in the world on one line, a top-ten scorer on another, and arguably the most underrated forward in hockey on a third. More often than not, the Oilers will have a top player on the ice with this approach.
For all the ragging fans and media do on GM Peter Chiarelli (all of which is deserved, by the way), this was his vision for the team. Chiarelli wanted his Oiler teams to be big, tough, and strong down the middle and on the back-end. We can argue about the defense being good enough (it isn’t) but there is no doubt that the center depth chart is one of the best in the league when assembled this way.
Can It Work?:
The biggest argument against this is that the Oilers simply don’t have enough wingers to pull it off. It’s a good argument, because at the end of the day I tend to agree that they don’t have enough wingers to form three lines that can get it done.
For a few different reasons, however, they can still make it work. Jujhar Khaira and Zack Kassian were Connor McDavid’s wingers in Anaheim on Sunday night and could fit there for a stretch. Longer term, it won’t work, but Kassian has played well in this spot the last few games and Khaira has slightly more skill than people give him credit for.
I’ve liked Jesse Puljujarvi’s game lately, and it was nice to see him get rewarded with a goal on Sunday. Alex Chiasson is having one helluva season, while Tobias Rieder has shown flashes of chemistry with Draisaitl in the season’s first half.
It’s going to take guys playing above established levels, but is it out of the realm of possibility to expect McDavid to carry/elevate a guy like Kassian for a stretch? I don’t think so.
It will be tough without guys stepping up, but the current group can certainly make this work with buy in and consistent effort. That hasn’t always been the case early this season.
Wingers Are Easy (Allegedly):
The good news about rolling with McDavid-Draisaitl-RNH down the middle? You don’t need to add a center via trade between now and the deadline. You’ll have to add a winger, or ideally two, between now and then, but that’s a lot easier to do.
As teams fall out of the race, and it is already starting to happen, rental wingers who can play top-nine roles will begin to come available. The prices on those players are historically far lower than on centers. On top of that, reading the tea leaves, there will be plenty of wingers on the market in the coming weeks.
Rumors already have Patrick Maroon on the market, and he’d be a low-cost fit for the Oilers. The Rangers are dead in the water, and Mats Zuccarello is a pending free agent that will certainly be moved. Ottawa’s JG Pageau and Ryan Dzingel are likely to hit the market, while Detroit could shop guys like Thomas Vanek.
That’s just a quick look off the top of my head, and teams like Chicago, LA, Arizona, New Jersey and Florida could join the sellers market in due time. If the Oilers want to add wingers, the options will be there.
It’s going to take some movement, but the Oilers could absolutely make this work with their best three players on different lines. Peter Chiarelli is going to have to get to work (scary, I know) but it isn’t a crazy thought.
Maroon’s market won’t be huge, and I suspect a mid-round pick (4th?) gets a deal done for him. Zuccarello will cost a little bit more, but he won’t break the bank whatsoever. The Oilers could easily acquire both of them and run a forward group that looks as follows.
Patrick Maroon – Connor McDavid – Kailer Yamamoto
Milan Lucic – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Jesse Puljujarvi
Tobias Rieder – Leon Draisaitl – Mats Zuccarello
Jujhar Khaira – Kyle Brodziak – Zack Kassian
Is it going to be an elite group? No, it isn’t, but it sure looks a lot better when you add in two top-nine wingers.
There is work to be done, but the best bet for this team is to add to the wing position and let these three centers roll. It might just be enough to get them into the postseason and save some people’s jobs.