With hockey less than a week away and Oilers training camp in full swing, we are finally getting a look at how the 2021 Oilers will lineup against their Canadian foes. It is going to be an interesting year, to say the least. The 58-game season will feature games against their Canadian counterparts in what is thought to be one of the closest divisions in the league. Experts have pegged the Oilers from finishing anywhere from first to sixth in the all-Canadian division.
This year’s iteration of the team will look a lot different than in recent years. While the goaltending tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith remained the same, that cannot be said for the forward and defensive groups. Guys like Kyle Turris and Tyson
Barrie will join the lineup but are far from the only differences that we will see. Dave Tippett has already given us a preview of how he plans to deploy these newbies but, considering how quickly things change in the NHL, there are sure to be plenty of changes before the puck drops on January 13th.
So, in the spirit of hockey’s return, I decided to take a look at what an ideal Edmonton Oilers lineup could look like. This isn’t an opening night lineup prediction, rather a rough prediction of how they will look at the end of the regular season and into the playoffs.
Ok, now let's get to the fun part...
Nugent-Hopkins — McDavid — Puljujarvi
Having McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins together on the first line is not a new idea. The pair have been together on-and-off for the past few seasons and the results were encouraging. If you dip your toe in the fancy stats it is also encouraging. McDavid has spent over 500 minutes at even strength with Nugent-Hopkins over the course of the past two seasons. In that span, they have put up a CF% a tad over 50% which is just slightly better than the 49.6% that Leon Draisaitl and McDavid had over the same span.
Moving Nuge to McDavid’s wing is a solid bet and one that has a high potential to pay off. Despite the immense talent of both of these players, many Oiler fans will be paying close attention to the third man on the line: Jesse Puljujarvi.
Puljujarvi is entering his second stint with the Oilers since being drafted 4th overall in 2016. The towering Finn finally agreed to rejoin the team last summer on a two-year deal after spending the entire 2019/20 season playing in Finland. As it stands right now, it is looking like Jesse will have to earn his spot on the top line. Tippett is currently running him in a third-line role alongside Kyle Turris and Josh Archibald, but there is reason to believe that won’t be the case all season.
Puljujarvi has shown well at camp so far, having impressed teammates with his skill and size. He also possesses a lot of tools that would make him an ideal linemate for McDavid. His big frame can create room on the ice and help protect the puck in the offensive zone. If you want the nitty-gritty on why I really like Puljujarvi’s odds on the top line, I wrote an article all about it back in September that you can check out.
We will get more of the same (if not better) from Nuge & McDavid and hopefully, Puljujarvi can cash in as well.
Kahun — Draisaitl — Yamamoto
Perhaps the biggest story of the 2019/20 season was the emergence of Edmonton’s killer second line of RNH-Draisaitl-Yamamoto. The trio was absolute gold for the team when they were assembled in early 2020 and was a major reason why the Oilers were contending for the division crown at the pause. The line was broken up in the play-in round against Chicago, much to the dismay of many fans, and they won’t all be together for this season either. Instead, we have a newcomer who has shown some impressive chemistry with Leon Draisaitl in the past: Dominik Kahun.
The recent plight of Kahun has been a weird one. The German forward was brought over to the NHL by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2018/19 and has been pinballed around the league ever since. The Oilers will be his fourth team in three seasons after the Buffalo Sabres declined to qualify him this past offseason. Kahun’s metrics are solid with a CF% just over 50% and 31 points in 56 games last season. He also has plenty of experience playing with Leon Draisaitl as they were linemates during their time in Germany together. There is a bit of a risk in running him in this position but, considering everything, there is a decent chance it works out.
On the other side of Draisaitl will be Kailer Yamamoto. The 2017 first rounder exploded onto the scene last season after being called up in late December and was the catalyst for that offensive explosion I mentioned earlier. He put up 26 points in the 27 games played last season and really came into his own. His playstyle would be best summed up as being similar to Brenden Gallagher; a small ball of energy who has some killer offensive instincts. I am a bit leery of the dreaded sophomore slump but Yamamoto should be in good hands.
Only time will tell if this line can bring last year’s magic into this year.
Ennis — Turris — Kassian
The third-line will feature a few fresh faces. Tyler Ennis, who showed well in his short 12 game stint with the Oilers last season, will be the player to watch on this line. His speedy and relentless style of play will bode well for a team that has lacked that sort of tenacity in its bottom six for the past decade. He also proves to be a great veteran presence that guys like Yamamoto can learn from. Ennis is looking in tip-top shape in camp so far so there is reason to believe he can be valuable on the third line.
Ennis’ pivot will be the newly acquired Kyle Turris. Once regarded as one of the better centermen in the league, Turris has faced a number of rough seasons in Nashville leading to his buyout last fall. He comes into Edmonton with a fresh new start and lowered expectations that are sure to help him grip the stick a little bit lighter. Turris gives Edmonton a good player on the faceoff dot as well as one that has some offensive upside as he is only two seasons removed from a 51 point season.
Lastly, we have Zack Kassian flanking the right side. I actually really like Kassian in this role as I think it suits his play style the best, the unfortunate thing about him is his contract. Ken Holland decided to give Kassian a four-year deal that carries a $3.2 million cap-hit. It was given in the midst of a heater from the gritty winger but was quickly followed up by a slump and a disappointing playoff performance. While I don’t think Kassian will eclipse the 34 points he put up last season, I still believe that he will prove to be a valuable member of a third line that could be sneaky good.
This third-line has the potential to be the best the organization has seen in years.
Neal — Haas — Archibald
The fourth line has a little bit of intrigue at the center position as I have Gaetan Haas taking the full-time gig by the end of the season. He has outplayed his competition at this spot, that being Jujhar Khaira, and has faired well in Switzerland during the COVID break. He is a crafty player and if he can smooth out some minor details in his game he could be a very good option on the fourth line.
Flanking Haas on the left side will be James “The Real Deal” Neal. After coming off a rebound year that saw him put up 19 goals in his first season with the Oilers, expectations should be tempered when discussing his future. He won’t be the top-line player that he has been in the past but this isn’t necessarily a death sentence for him. He continues to have a very good shot and if he can develop some chemistry with Haas and Archibald a 10-15 goal season is not completely out of the question.
Finally, we come to a budding fan favourite with Josh Archibald. The 28-year-old Regina native was on pace to have a career season with the Oilers that saw him put up 21 points in 68 games before COVID ended the season. His scrappy and energetic play earned him points within the fanbase and it got him rewarded with some time alongside McDavid. I think we have yet to see Archibald play to his full potential and he could very well beat out Kassian for a spot on a third line.
This is an overall balanced line that should fair well at even strength.
Keep in mind that this is a very optimistic outlook on the current roster. While I do believe that this is one of the deepest Oiler teams we have seen in recent memory you have to keep expectations tempered. To keep this in perspective just take a look at three young players in the top six: Puljujarvi, Yamamoto and Kahun. All three of those players are early into their NHL careers and the jury is still out on whether they can handle top-six minutes.
The team is also betting on a number of players to have bounceback seasons such as Turris and Kassian. Furthermore, injuries continue to be unpredictable and could easily throw this team into a death spiral at any moment. I do think the potential for all these lines to click is fairly high but I can’t confidently say that it won’t be stopped by any number of these unpredictable factors. A great example of injuries coming out of nowhere is the fact that it was just announced that Neal wouldn’t be ready to play on opening night.
What I want you to keep in mind is that, on paper, this team will be battling for the top spot in the Canadian division and the fanbase should be extremely excited about that. Yet, we saw this very same narrative heading into the 2017/18 season so don’t celebrate just yet.
Hockey is back and so are the Oilers! What are your ideal forward lines heading into the 2021 season?