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Minor change that represents a larger issue

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NHL: Edmonton Oilers at New York Rangers Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

The Oilers made changes to their bottom six line combinations following their 5-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils in Sweden. Centerman Kyle Brodziak became a healthy scratch. And Zack Kassian and Tobias Rieder, his two wingers from the first game, moved up to play with centerman Ryan Strome. That pushed Jujhar Khaira and Jesse Puljujärvi, Strome’s two most common linemates from preseason, down to the fourth line to play with Drake Caggiula.

The Puljujärvi demotion was the most controversial and for good reason. He’s a good prospect with plenty of ability that the Oilers need to be a productive winger going forward. And it’s hard to take a step in your individual professional development when you’re playing fewer minutes and with lesser talent. Worth noting that Puljujärvi had a strong preseason as well, scoring four goals in five games and was much more assertive in his overall play. Demoting him this quickly might be a strategic move by the coaching staff, but it’s hard to envision how this will help the Oilers win hockey games.

Now while the Puljuarvi demotion garners the most attention from fans and media, it’s moving Jujhar Khaira to the fourth line center position that should be raising red flags.

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

What we’ve learned over his 96-game NHL career is that while he can play center, Khaira’s best on-ice results occur when there’s another center with him on his line.

In 2017/18, when Khaira was deployed at even-strength (5v5) with Ryan Strome, his on-ice share of shot attempts (used as a proxy for possession) was 52.54% and unblocked shot attempts (used as a proxy for scoring chances) was over 55.56%. Their on-ice goal-share wasn’t nearly as good, just breaking even due in large part to the team’s poor goaltending. When Khaira was deployed with Letestu last season over 83 minutes, his on-ice share of shot attempts and scoring chances were over 51%.

Any time Khaira was deployed as the sole center on a line last season at even strength - so that’s without Strome, Draisaitl, Letestu or Nugent-Hopkins - his on-ice results took a noticeable hit. With a variety of wingers including Lucic, Puljujärvi, Pakarinen, Caggiula, Kassian and Slepyshev, Khaira’s on ice goal-share last season was 33.3% (5 goals for, 10 goals against) over the course of +300 minutes. This was due in large part because the team faced a higher proportion of shots against when Khaira played center, as his on-ice Corsi For percentage fell to 45.7%.

It’s worth noting too that the Oilers coaching staff wanted to be sure about Khaira’s ability to play center, making him the fourth line pivot for the final month of the 2017/18 season - a well prioritized assessment period to close a lost season. They were clearly gathering information about the player and his ability to be a reliable bottom-six centerman.

And it appeared that the Oilers had determined that Khaira would be most productive as a part-time centerman following this assessment period.

During the 2018 preseason, Khaira spent most of his ice-time with Strome as they were deployed for around twenty minutes at even-strength along with Puljujärvi, The trio finished with a goal-share of 100% (2 goals for, 0 against), with an absurdly high on-ice Corsi For percentage of 70.27%. Small sample size for sure, and there’s the issue around the quality of competition during exhibition matches, but the trio also had excellent results in just under thirty minutes in the 2017/18 regular season, finishing with a 100% goal-share (4 goals for, 0 against), and an on-ice Corsi For percentage of 52.0%.

This is what makes the Oilers decision to move Khaira to the fourth line as the sole center so perplexing. They committed time and energy to assess if he could play center at the end of 2017/18 season, and the on-ice results were poor. And any line combination of Khaira as a center since he entered the league has led to poor on-ice results (i.e., goals and shots). Combine this information, which the Oilers easily have access to, with Khaira’s results from the year-ending assessment period, and they should have no reason to put Khaira in this position - one in which he’s likely to fail.

The decision to move Khaira to fourth-line center last week can be regarded as a small line-up change that should have a low impact on the overall results. But it’s yet another example of the Edmonton Oilers making small bets based on little to no evidence to support it.

Data: Natural Stat Trick