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Playing With the Roster: Forwards

A thought experiment

Edmonton Oilers v Vancouver Canucks Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

“If I were as bad at my job as Peter Chiarelli is at his, I’d be fired” is a phrase you’re going to hear quite a lot if the Oilers come out to a slow start this year. I must ask, what exactly is it you guys do for a living where that would be true? I’m not defending the job Chia has done by and means, of course, but I have worked plenty of regular jobs throughout my life and I have never found that being bad at them — or even outright detrimental — would ever lead to a firing unless it was a personality problem. Whether you’re in an office, on a construction site, or in a warehouse, take a look around. If you’re in a place with 20 or more employees, you’ll be able to pick out at least three individuals who meet the criteria and have full job security. If you’re union or government, it’s closer to the inverse. Hell, if you’re reading this at work — and I suspect some of you are — pat yourself on the back. It’s you.

Now, if you’re like me, and woke up to what may as well have been six feet of snow on the ground, I presume that you’ve been thinking about the Oilers all day, the way I have. After watching the Oilers put up seven goals on the beer league team that happened to be Winnipeg Jets jerseys last night, I started talking to a good friend about how the roster might shake out. This is more of a fun little exercise and thinking out loud than it is a suggestion that I think I can definitively do better.

To start the season, I’m guessing we’ll see something like this:

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Connor McDavid - Ty Rattie

Milan Lucic - Leon Draisaitl - Kailer Yamamoto

Jujhar Khaira - Ryan Strome - Jesse Puljujarvi

I’m ignoring the fourth line because that is going to be ever changing, and I don’t think fourth lines are particularly important.

The first thing that should jump out with that roster, is Ty Rattie. Is he really the player that can be plugged onto that first line and be effective? So far in the preseason, he’s done his part in scoring goals — Including five points last night. Still, he’s only good in one area of the ice. His hands are quick enough to get some goals that maybe others can’t, but when the team doesn’t have the puck, Rattie being out there on the ice is the equivalent of playing short handed. I do suppose that if you’re going to try and get use out of a player like that, McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins would be the right way to do it. I’m still currently unconvinced that his apathy to defensive play doesn’t hinder the other two players more than the goals he’ll provide. Time will tell.

The next thing that stands out is Kailer Yamamoto on that second line. He is far from guaranteed a roster spot, but I’d say he looks likely to get one right now. Before you guys start talking about AHL time and all that rushing noise, I first ask that you point out a forward that is going to better help the team than he. You’ll be hard pressed to find more than four players as good as Kailer. Because there is no reason for players like Pontus Aberg or Zack Kassian playing above him, and because plug UFA signing Tobias Rieder is likely to be battling for Kharia’s spot, I’m going to run with the assumption that he’s making the team this year. Some will say that we shouldn’t be relying on a rookie to help that line, I’d counter that stance by pointing out the other side of that line and ask if we should really be relying on that!

The NHL seems to be the only level of any sport where sending down better players than the ones you keep — based on nothing but age — is considered good practice.

The Third Line is a little more tricky. When I first saw it I was annoyed. Why is Jesse Puljujarvi going to have to haul Ryan Strome around like that? He’s faster, better defensively, and smarter than Rattie, maybe put him on the top line. Then I stumbled across one of Sunil’s pieces about Khaira and Strome playing together. They were on a line with Yessa for a limited amount of time, but when they were together, it actually worked really, really well. All three of those players have excellent shooting talent, and with the elite defensive play (for a winger) of Jesse Puljujarvi, that line would have the puck a lot, and sustain a very high PDO.

I wonder though, are there better line combinations to spur success? Maybe something like:

Nugent-Hopkins - McDavid - Ty Rattie

Milan Lucic - Leon Draisaitl - Ryan Strome

Kailer Yamamoto - Jujhar Khaira - Jesse Puljujarvi

The top line remains in tact for now (I’m starting to understand propping up players like Rattie to spread talent around), but the 2nd and third have a few adjustments.

Ryan Strome on the right side in the top six seems a bit different — You typically don’t expect a 30ish point player there; However, as OriginalPouzar showed us, Ryan Strome actually is more than competent there. Expecting a player in his mid-20s to significantly improve his point totals is something that awful pro scouts do in terms of suggesting trading for a player, but with Pouzar’s data, it does look like it could work if used properly. Milan Lucic on the other hand, well, all we can do is hope that he’ll be at least more useful than a tire iron on a boat. We’re married to that contract until the next round of compliance buyouts are awarded.

That third line is more of an experiment in one of my fantasies. I most certainly don’t expect that we’ll ever see this. Just, what if? I know, I know, I have Kailer Yamamoto on his left side, and Khaira playing center. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t particularly care where players line up for the faceoff, and that it’s more important to note what the forwards are actually doing during play, and this is no different. Jesse Puljujarvi played Center a few years ago on a line with Patrik Laine because Laine couldn’t play any other position than right wing. That is, unless you count goalie. So there is a way to make this work. The three forwards would just rotate their forecheck as play develops. Similarly to what Connor and Leon did the past two years, and what I expect Nuge and Connor will be doing this year.

Khaira was used sparingly as a center last year for small amounts of time, and Kailer Yamamoto is more than capable of switching to the left side of the ice. Playing on the off-side is one of those things that you don’t want to see defensemen do because it hurts their ability to move the puck out of their own zone. Conversely though, when forwards do it, it tends to be conductive for offensive production. It changes the angle of a player’s shot and gives them more of the net to shoot at. It worked out pretty well for Jaromir Jagr and Alex Ovechkin, anyway.

The other aspect of this is that both Jesse and Kailer are fantastic defensively, and that leads to having the puck a whole lot. So if those three players were to be thrown on a line together, I think it would have a better-than-expected outcome than at first glance.

Overall, through writing this piece, I’ve become a lot more optimistic about our forward group than I was as recently as last night. There is still going to be Todd McLellan’s never ending love for Drake Caggiula ruining potential lines, and no matter what way you cut it, that fourth line is going to be about three times as expensive as it needs to be, but there is good opportunity to put pucks in the net. Assuming of course, that Rattie doesn’t suck and that Yamamoto doesn’t get the fear of rushing treatment.

Do you have any suggestions? I’m sure there’s a way to make something even better. Let me know in the comments. We both know that you’re not going to get anymore work done today, anyway.