Following the loss to the Rangers on Thursday night, the Oilers appear to be shaking up their forward line combinations. Prior to the game, I had looked into how the four most common lines have done thus far and found that three of the four lines have actually done reasonably well together when looking at possession and expected goals. Draisaitl's line with Maroon and Puljujarvi was the one that I thought would show poorly in my analysis, but it appears that they have had some bad luck finishing their chances and should be expected to bounce back. Looks like the team is making changes regardless.
Pouliot-RNH-Puljujarvi, Maroon-McDavid-Eberle, Lucic-Draisaitl-Kassian, Lander-Letestu-Pitlick/Slepyshev— Bob Stauffer (@Bob_Stauffer) November 4, 2016
One thing I like to do periodically through a season is see how each defenceman has done with each of the forwards when it comes to their share of total shot attempts (i.e., Corsi For percentage, CF%). This is just a quick way to see if there are any patterns and any areas for concern when it comes to player deployment.
What we know from the first 11 games is that McDavid's line and Draisaitl's line have been getting the bulk of the offensive zone starts, with Nugent-Hopkins and Letestu's lines starting more often in their own zone. We also know that RNH is getting hard matched by the coaching staff against the opposing team's top lines, which makes sense considering his experience in that role, and his good two-way game. So what I'm expecting when I do this exercise at this point of the season is to see the defencemen post average to above-average possession numbers with the McDavid and Draisaitl lines. And below-average possession numbers with Nugent-Hopkins and Letestu lines. Here's how things have looked as of today.
What I've done here is highlight the Corsi For percentages that are above 47.3%, the team's current CF%, in blue. And any Corsi For percentages that are below 47.3% are orange. There are percentages well above or well below that team possession number, but for this exercise I'm only interested in which combinations are above or below. (Source: Hockey Analysis)
It should come as no surprise that every defenceman posts a CF% above the team average when they're with McDavid and his line. What's troubling, however, is that not even McDavid can get the CF% of the Russell/Sekera pairing above 50%. On top of that, they duo are posting below team average possession numbers with the rest of the forwards, something that cannot be happening for your second pairing. Considering the history of Russell, that shouldn't be totally surprising. It'll be interesting to see if he does get pulled away from Sekera and placed in an even more sheltered role going forward.
Nugent-Hopkins, Pouliot and Kassian are taking on tougher competition, so their numbers do take a hit. Yet they're still posting okay numbers with young Nurse and Gryba. The Oilers are doing the right thing limiting Nurse's minutes, and it'll be ideal to keep him in that role for the rest of the season. It just would not surprise me if the coaching staff elevates him into a top four role if Russell continues his poor play or if one of the top four defencemen get hurt.
Because Puljujarvi is a raw rookie and Draisaitl is in his second year, the coaching staff has done a nice job sheltering this line and providing them with plenty of offensive opportunities. I was expecting their possession numbers to be stronger because of that, but it appears that they only do well with Klefbom and Larsson, who they have spent the least amount of ice time with among defencemen. It would be ideal to have Draisaitl spend more time with Klefbom/Larsson, but this pairing is needed more often in their own zone, where Draisaitl is being kept away from. This is again where that second pairing of Russell/Sekera should be a good fit, but for whatever reason, maybe it's the two left handed shots from the point, it hasn't worked out.
And lastly, we have the fourth line, which doesn't appear to be getting anything done. Not only are they posting numbers less than the team CF% of 47.3, but they're also well below that hovering in the 30% range. You could make the case that they're getting a lot of defensive zone starts, and they have produced in recent games. But using possession numbers, which are good predictors of future success, we can assume whatever they're producing is not sustainable. The team definitely needs to consider making some changes to this fourth line by either bringing in someone like Khaira, who is producing well at the AHL level, or shuffling the lines to bring in more skill.
It'll be interesting to see if the Oilers actually go with the new line combinations and how long it will last for. Moving Puljujarvi on to Nugent-Hopkins' line is somewhat risky as the young rookie will be playing against the other team's top line and won't have as many offensive zone opportunities. Moving Maroon up with McDavid and Eberle should be alright, and they did produce together at the end of last season. Their issue, however, was less than stellar possession numbers, offset by an abnormally high PDO, hovering around 107.
It'l also be interesting to see how the trio of Draisaitl, Kassian and Lucic are deployed by the coaching staff. None of them are strong puck carriers or have a lot of speed, so I'd imagine they'd have more starts outside of the defensive zone. And what the team is expecting from their depth line, which will go unchanged, is beyond me. At the end of the day, the team can shuffle the forward lines as much as they want, they aren't the issue. In my opinion, the problem lies in their defence pairings, especially their second pairing of Russell and Sekera, who have struggled in every situation.