Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Edmonton Oilers.
One of the only bright spots for the 2018-19 Edmonton Oilers was the breakout performance of forward Leon Draisaitl.
After back-to-back 25-goal, 70-point seasons where he looked to be an outstanding young complementary player to Connor McDavid, Draisaitl’s production erupted to an MVP level with a 50-goal, 105-point season that saw him finish in the top-four in the NHL in goals and total points.
He helped form one of the NHL’s best offensive duos alongside McDavid and gave the Oilers a line that could match up against any other top line in the league.
The key for the Oilers in climbing out of their pit of irrelevance isn’t just going to be about finding a way to build around the McDavid and Draisaitl duo, but also finding a way to ensure that the latter is able to repeat (or at least come close to repeating) what he did this past season.
The best way to do that: Resist the temptation to give him his own line and keep him right where he is on McDavid’s wing.
[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | Three Questions]
The argument for moving Draisaitl to his own line has always been that it could extend the Oilers’ depth and give them a situation where at least one of McDavid, Draisaitl, or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (by far their three best players) are almost always on the ice at any given time. It sounds like a solid plan in theory because of how good each of them are (a deeper team is a better team), especially since there is a mindset that due to Draisaitl’s salary he should be able to run his own line.
The problem is it that it simply doesn’t work, mainly because the Oilers don’t have enough pieces on the roster to complement McDavid and Draisaitl working separately. By splitting them up under the team’s current construction you are wasting what each one can do by putting them with — for lack of a better word — inferior players.
That means instead of boosting the team it usually just ends up holding back the two stars, and that only makes a bad team even worse.
The reality of the situation for the Oilers is this: Whether he plays with McDavid or not, Draisaitl is probably going to see some kind of a regression in his production this season because he is not going to score on 22 percent of his shots again. Also keep in mind that Draisaitl is one of just four players over the past 10 years (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Alex Ovechkin being the others, all doing it just once during that stretch) to top 50 goals and 100 points in the same season, so that alone makes it hard to believe he can duplicate those exact numbers.
But they can still maximize what they get out of him by putting him in a situation where he has a chance to produce the most. That situation always has been, still is, and will most likely continue to be next to McDavid.
The McDavid-Draisaitl duo is the one positive thing the Oilers have going for them, and even though loading up all of their eggs in one basket might make their lineup thinner from a depth perspective, it is still making the team better because of how dominant these two are alongside each other. There is enough objective evidence over the past three years to show that both players see their production spike when they are on a line together and drop when they are on their own (yes, even McDavid’s production drops when he is away from Draisaitl — mostly because of what the alternative is on his wing). This is when both players are at their best as it gives each of them an elite offensive player to play off of.
At least this way the Oilers know they have 15-20 minutes per night where they are going to out play their opponents. Whether or not they can get enough out of the rest of the roster to at least tread water for the other 40-45 minutes remains to be seen, but the McDavid-Draisaitl duo might be at least good enough to steal a few games the team might otherwise lose.
It is not perfect, but it is the best chance the Oilers have.
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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.