March 02 2017 03:22PM
Even without a real third line centre this year, Todd McLellan and his staff kept bumping Leon Draisaitl over to right wing on the Edmonton Oilers’ top line. At the deadline, the Oilers brought a legitimate candidate in to fill that third line role in David Desharnais. Thus it seemed like a logical assumption that this would lead to full-time deployment of a McDavid/Draisaitl duo on the top line.
McLellan talked to the press on Thursday, and explained that such an assumption was not at all in line with his thinking on the subject.
Asked whether Draisaitl would be used full-time on the top line, McLellan acknowledged that having Desharnais made that configuration easier but shot down the idea that Edmonton would go to static line combinations:
“It gives us that luxury. Whether we use it all the time or not, and it will depend on David’s play and others, having a little more depth down the middle allows us to choose to keep Leon up there. But if that line isn’t going well, if our group isn’t going well, if a team is shutting down a group of players, well then Leon’s going to go somewhere else and try and get a line going.”
The top line running into a slump is always a possibility, but the more likely reason for a change would be trouble elsewhere. The Oilers’ secondary scoring has been one of the relatively few negative storylines this season, and it’s arguably a problem that has been made worse by the frequent decision to play the team’s two most effective forwards together.
Right now things are going well. The trio of Milan Lucic, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle have scored three even-strength goals in the last five games, with the rest of the club’s attackers (including the top line) combining for four. If that changes, Draisaitl could well be shifted down again.
That’s really what we’re looking for. We’re not just looking to keep Connor and Leon together all the time, we’re looking for success. Leon’s been tremendous with it. He’s been able to go all over the map, all over the board and find success with whoever he’s playing with. I think that’s a sign of a real good player.
Obviously, nobody is going to argue with an overarching goal of team success. Few would even disagree with the idea of having a player or two whose specific role is something akin to duct tape, being used here and there whenever there’s a need to keep things from coming apart.
Where there’s room for a little bit of skepticism is the claim that Draisaitl is that player.
I’ve been critical for most of the year of the way McLellan kept going back to the McDavid/Draisaitl tandem, especially given the way it opened up holes further down the lineup. But being a coach is all about juggling conflicting responsibilities, and when I looked at how Draisaitl’s various lines have performed this season McLellan’s reasons for preferring that combination looked awfully clear.
Via puckalytics.com, every Draisiatl forward combo that has spent at least 30 minutes together at 5-on-5 this year:
The three numbers to watch are ice-time (TOI), goal differential per hour (GD/60) and Corsi differential per hour (CD/60).
Draisaitl’s really been at his best in a defined role. Early in the year, that was as a centre between Patrick Maroon and Jesse Puljujarvi. That line didn’t score a lot in its hour-or-so of existence, but it had a massive edge on the shot clock and it certainly didn’t get scored on. Of late, that’s been on McDavid’s right wing, either with Maroon or Milan Lucic.
What hasn’t worked as well are Draisaitl’s stints on other lines. As right wing with Nugent-Hopkins the results were not great. As a centre with Lucic and a rotating right wing, they were worse. I still look at Lucic and Draisaitl and wonder if there isn’t some combination of those two that would work well, but given the results it isn’t hard to figure why McLellan doesn’t want to experiment.
Nevertheless, it is plain that the coach likes having the player, and he drew on a specific parallel from his time in San Jose to drive the point home:
Joe Pavelski was like that for us in San Jose all those years; you could move him all over and those lines had success.
This isn’t the first time that McLellan has referenced Pavelski. It’s been a little over a year since the Oilers coach compared one of his centres to the versatile Sharks forward. Back then, the comment was in reference to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and came right after McLellan told the assembled media that he believed in that player “100 percent.”
It would seem that Draisaitl has displaced Nugent-Hopkins as McLellan’s all-purpose centre. Given the years they’re having, it’s hard to argue against the 21-year-old Draisaitl as the best fit for that role on the roster.
Nevertheless, his results this season haven’t come all over; they’ve come mostly from one place. Draisaitl has been most effective as McDavid’s right wing. That’s why he’s spent so much time there this year regardless of what it did to the team’s third line. Now that Desharnais is around, there’s going to be even less temptation to bump Draisaitl off that wing.