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The Case For Line-Stacking

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Edmonton Oilers v Washington Capitals Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Well, Todd McLellan got fired. I mean, it’s basically the only thing that anyone’s talking about when I open my Twitter app. That’s undoubtedly a sign that I follow way too many Oilers bloggers.

This article is in defense of Todd. Well, kind of.

If I’m being honest, it’s an article that I’ve been meaning to write for a little while now, and making it kind of about Todd is just a way of making it seem relevant. Nevertheless, McLellan had been receiving the ire of many Oilers fans for a while now, and for a laundry list of reasons. But, in my opinion, at least one of the common complaints of McLellan’s coaching was overblown: His habitual reuniting of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, the team’s two best players, both of whom are natural centres, and, in a perfect world, both of whom should be the driving force behind his own quality line at even strength.

I understand the criticism. I would love the Oilers to develop what the Penguins have had for the last decade and change: nightmare matchup, after nightmare matchup, with McDavid filling the Crosby role, and Draisaitl doing his best Geno Malkin imitation. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s a viable solution for the Oilers, with their current roster.

The way I see it, the Oilers have three forwards who would, without question, play every night for any other team in the NHL. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Beyond them, I don’t think there’s another forward on the team who would, without a doubt, be considered too good to scratch or send to the AHL for an organization with better forward depth, when everyone is healthy.

That’s depressing, but it’s also just the way it is. And, as a result of this wafer-thin forward group, a lot of discussion gets dedicated to how the Oilers should deploy their top three players, all of whom are conveniently natural centres.

It seems that, among sharp fans, the most common conclusion is that Nugent-Hopkins is the ideal linemate for Connor McDavid, since the world’s best player should have at least one other quality player on his line, so as not to waste his magnificent playmaking on vastly inferior offensive linemates.

And, while I do agree with this reasoning, the result is Leon Draisaitl centering a second line with very little help, and struggling. Which is disappointing, but also, to be expected to a certain extent. The alternative is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins centering a second line with no help, and we already know that Nuge hasn’t been able to make something out of nothing either, following the trades of bona fide top line wingers Taylor Hall, and Jordan Eberle.

My assertion is that, purely based on finishing talent, Leon Draisaitl is a better option as McDavid’s top line winger than Nugent-Hopkins is. Here’s why:

Since the start of the 2015-16, when Draisaitl was called up from the AHL to become a full-time NHLer, 113 forwards have taken at least 500 shots, league-wide. Among those 113 forwards, Leon Draisaitl’s shooting percentage ranks sixth, at 15.3%. Meanwhile, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ shooting percentage ranks 67th, at 11.2%. It’s in the Oilers’ best interest to put their most efficient shooters in a position to take the most shots.

For example, Nugent-Hopkins has taken 194 shots per 82 games since the start of 2015-16. He’s done this while mostly playing with inferior line-mates. Let’s imagine, that if he played a full 82 games as McDavid’s winger, his shot volume would increase by 20%, to 233 shots. At a shooting percentage of 11.2%, that would result in 26.1 goals.

Meanwhile, Leon Draisaitl doesn’t fire the puck as often. He’s average 179 shots on goal per 82 games, over the same time frame. A healthy chunk of that time has come while playing with McDavid, and a decent amount during his first season came playing with Hall, another ideal linemate. He did spent a good chunk of last season centering a line of vastly inferior wingers, but overall he’s played with better players than Nugent-Hopkins has. Let’s assume that over the course of 82 games, Draisaitl is permanently glued to a second line role, away from the Oilers’ other two good forwards. Let’s also assume that this role cuts his individual shot volume by 20% of what it has been for the best three and a quarter seasons. That’s 143 shots on goal, which, for a 15.3% shooter would result in 21.9 goals.

So, in this scenario, the Oilers have had 48 goals scored on 376 shots between Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Now, let’s imagine the opposite. In this scenario, let’s imagine the Leon’s Draisaitl has a permanent role as McDavid’s sidekick for 82 games, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is forced to make the best of a bad situation, playing exclusively with scrubs.

This more closely resembles how the Oilers have made the lineups for the past three plus years, so we’ll use a more conservative increase in shots for the first liner, and a more conservative decrease for the second liner.

Imagine this permanent top-line role provided a 5% increase in shots for Draisaitl, the result would be 188 shots over the course of a full season, which, at a 15.3% shooting percentage would result in 28.8 goals.

Meanwhile, a 5% decrease in shots per 82 games for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would result in 184 shots on goal. At an 11.2% shooting percentage, that would result in 20.6 goals.

Combined, this lineup would result in 49.4 goals on 372 shots. It’s a slight drop in total shots, based on giving the more willing shooter fewer looks, but, due to Draisaitl’s superior shooting percentage, it’s also an increase of 1.4 goals.

That may not seem significant, but, consider this: According to Corsica’s Goals Above Replacement Model, only five Oilers were worth more than 1.4 goals more than a replacement level player last season: Connor McDavid (32.76), Cam Talbot (6.75), Leon Draisaitl (5.35), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (5.08), and Kris Russell (1.44).

Proper deployment of the team’s top shooters is worth roughly the same as any skater on the roster, besides the Oilers’ three good forwards.

Limitations

Part of Draisaitl’s high shooting percentage in undoubtedly linked to his time spent with McDavid. I’m not a believer that shooting percentage is solely a result of finishing talent, it’s also a result of circumstance, with offensively capable linemates being a major contributing factor. Still, having the sixth best shooting percentage in the league over a span of more than three years is nothing to sneeze at. This article uses the Draisaitl vs. Nugent-Hopkins as argument an illustration of why efficient shooters should ideally play with their team’s best drivers of play. But, it really should be taken as a universal philosophy more than a criticism of anything Nugent-Hopkins has done. It was also the crux of my argument of why I liked Eberle on Mcdavid’s line during McDavid’s rookie year. I maintain that Eberle would have been a good fit with McDavid to this day, had he not been traded as a result of a shooting percentage slump.

Further Consideration

Would playing all three good forwards together be the optimal deployment strategy for the Oilers. Having the team’s three best drivers of play together would result in a lot of chances for a super-line, and, giving more chances to all three of the Oilers’ best shooters couldn’t hurt either. It would be a bloodbath for the 40 minutes or so a night when none of those three are on the ice, which is the main reason why it’s not an obvious option.

Still, I imagine that line would be on par, with other top lines in the league, like the Mackinnon line in Colorado, or the gold standard, which is the Bergeron line in Boston.

I would be interested to see if Hitchcock tries to have those three dominate while playing at a high pace, then having the rest of the team trap and place frustratingly low-event defensive hockey, in an attempt to mitigate their talent deficit. I think it’s worth a shot, specifically now that we have a coach who can suck the life out of a game when he needs to. Having McDavid do anything but play at a million mile an hour is a hindrance to his talent, but this may be the way for this coach to get the most out of this roster. Stack the top line, let them go, and grind the play to a halt when they’re not out there.