Magnus Paajarvi is struggling right now. The fans know it. The hosts of local radio shows know it. Based on his being a healthy scratch twice on the recent road trip and playing less than nine minutes in the two games that followed it would appear that the team’s coaching staff knows it. And with just a single point, a second assist against the Coyotes, in 15 games this season I think it’s a safe bet to assume that Paajarvi knows it too.
After scoring 15 goals and adding 19 assists as a rookie last season the team was expecting a whole lot more from Paajarvi that they’re currently getting. Last season’s H.O.P.E. seems to be a distance memory right now with Linus Omark playing in Oklahoma City after starting the season in Edmonton but failing to register a point in five games and Paajarvi’s looking like a shell of his rookie self. So what do the Oilers do to get Paajarvi back on track?
To answer that question we need to first understand why Paajarvi is struggling. Clearly the puck isn’t going in and a big part of that might be a lack of shots. Last season Paajarvi averaged 2.25 shots per game; this season he’s down to 1.73. A decent drop off but it’s also worth pointing out that Paajarvi’s most successful part of last season was driven by a much higher shot rate than his season average. 95 games into his career it would seem that when Paajarvi is shooting the puck he’s playing well; when he’s not shooting, well you’ve seen the results.
So why then is Paajarvi shooting less? It's possible that he's simply forgotten how but more likely the players he’s being asked to play with are a big reason for that change. The offseason additions of Ryan Smyth and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins filled holes in the team’s top six forwards and pushed Paajarvi down in the pecking order. This season Paajarvi has spent most of his time playing with Eric Belanger and Sam Gagner, both capable NHL players but as a line they were very ineffective. The Oilers’ winning streak happened to coincide with this line’s existence which likely provides some explanation as to why it was allowed to fail for so long.
Other than the first two games of the year when Shawn Horcoff was his centre Paajarvi has spent almost no time playing with any of the Oilers top forwards and that more than anything is the issue with Paajarvi right now. Paajarvi has the skills to be a very good hockey player but he can’t do it by himself. Tom Renney has gone out of his way to shelter the Taylor Hall – Nugent-Hopkins – Jordan Eberle line but hasn’t been willing to shuffle the lines to give Paajarvi (or for that matter Omark) the line mates he needs to be successful. It's nice to have one, or two, lines working effectively but to win on a regular basis the Oilers are going to need more than that.
There is enough talent on this team to build three good forward lines. Derek previously looked at options available to Renney when Ales Hemsky returned, suggesting Paajarvi play alongside Anton Lander and Omark. I liked Derek's option but there seems to be significant opposition on the coaching staff to breaking up the Nugent-Hopkins line as Derek had called for so with that in mind I'd suggest something closer to this.
You could actually take this a step a further, recalling Omark from Oklahoma City inserting him on Horcoff's right side and having Horcoff protect Paajarvi and Omark much in the same way he protected Hall and Eberle last season; a role that worked out well for Hall and Eberle. The scoring chance data from last season shows that Paajarvi and Omark were quite successful together and in limited time with Horcoff the results were also encouraging so this might at least be worth a try.
In this scenario I'd drop Ryan Jones to the fourth line. Jones has been a much improved player in his own zone this season but that shouldn't guarantee him a spot on the team's top two lines. With line combinations like these the Oilers could have three lines that are an offensive threat and at the same time have an effective fourth line that can be trusted anywhere in the rink thanks to Belanger and the now defensively efficient Jones. That would be a very welcome change in Edmonton.