With training camp a few weeks away, the discussion around potential line combinations will begin to ramp up. With Milan Lucic joining the forward group, and new prospects like Jesse Puljujärvi and Drake Caggiula entering the system, along with older prospects like Jujhar Khaira and Anton Slepyshev pushing for spots, the possibilities are endless.
But before putting together potential line combinations, I thought it'd be worth looking at how the different line combinations did last season. In particular, I looked at the combinations that played at least 50 minutes together at 5v5, and focused on their possession numbers (CF%), their share of quality shots/expected goals (xGF%) and their share of actual goals (GF%). I've sorted the table by Corsi For%, but you can click the table's column headers to sort the other metrics. Also included in the table below is the time-on-ice (TOI), along with the line's PDO and percentage of offensive zone starts. Please note that the numbers have been adjusted for score state, zone and venue. Source: Corsica Hockey).
In total, there were 16 unique line combinations that played at least 50 minutes together at 5v5 last season. At the top of the list, when it comes to possession, is the trio of McDavid, Pouliot and Eberle, which finished with a CF% of 55.42. These three also finished second on the team when it came to expected goals (i.e., shot quality) with an xGF% of 58.09. So not only were the winning the share of shot attempts when they were on the ice, but they were generating quality chances. They finished with 53% of the totals goals scored when they were on the ice, which ranked their line 6th among the Oilers, but it's worth noting their PDO was slightly below 100. It's understandable to slot Lucic on McDavid's left side next season, but if that doesn't work out, there should be no hesitation among the coaching staff to deploy Pouliot with McDavid and Eberle again.
What's also worth noting is the performance of young Jujhar Khaira when he was briefly on a line with Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle for a total of 53 minutes last season. The trio posted a CF% 54.35, the second best possession number on the team, and an xGF% of 59.36, which was the best among the 16 unique line combinations. Worth noting that when Pouliot played with RNH and Eberle, the line posted a respectable CF% of 50.59%, but their xGF% was 43.87%, which ranked them 11th on the team. This is despite the trio's zone start ratio (i.e., the percentage of non-neutral zone starts that are offensive zone starts (OZS/(OZS + DZS)), was 57.86, fifth highest on the team. When RNH and Eberle played with Khaira, their percentage of offensive zone starts dropped to 32.00, which was the lowest percentage among all of the line combinations. This isn't to suggest that Pouliot is expendable to make room for Khaira. Rather, if the team wants to maximize Pouliot's contribution, it might be wise to keep him on a line with McDavid.
When ranking the 16 different line combinations for possession or expected goals, we see the Oilers bottom-six, depth forwards show up frequently at the bottom of the rankings. It becomes obvious why the team moved out Korpikoski and pursued college free agents like Caggiula and Russell to compete for third and fourth line positions. And with how poorly Letestu and Lander did at even-strength last season, combined with the possibility of moving Draisaitl to wing, it makes sense for the Oilers to bring in a veteran centerman, or three, to camp on a tryout basis.
On the flip side, if we rank the line combinations by expected goals, we see that the three best lines always feature Eberle on the right wing. He appears to be the most versatile forward playing important minutes with any centermen, in any combination of the top forwards and produces on a regular basis. Worth noting that among the five best line combinations, Draisaitl appears three times, but all three times he has Hall on the left side. Moving on without Hall is going to be a challenge for the team, but especially for Draisaitl who struggled to produce when not playing with Hall (Source: Cult of Hockey).
Heading into training camp, we know that there will be plenty of question marks around the group of forwards, who will have a lot to prove this coming season. What becomes somewhat troubling is the lack of depth in the bottom six, as plenty of young, inexperienced, forwards have a chance to compete for a roster spot. What's also obvious, especially from looking at the numbers from last season, is the lack of depth on the right side, with young Puljujärvi almost guaranteed a spot on the second or third line behind Eberle, and possibly ahead of Yakupov. Add to the fact that the Oilers are hoping for RNH to bounce back from a poor season and that Draisaitl can produce without Hall, and you have a franchise that's making a lot of bets on everything working itself out.