McDavid’s new top-line trio proving a worthy experiment for Oilers

Connor McDavid had four points, Ty Rattie put up five, and the Oilers cruised to a 7-3 win over the Jets in pre-season action.

EDMONTON — There is a question/opinion floating around the hockey talk shows about poor Connor McDavid. The gist is that his club has failed McDavid by forcing him to play with an out-of-position left-winger and a right-winger who isn’t even a proven NHLer.

They’re not wrong. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a natural centreman and Ty Rattie truly has only 49 NHL games played at age 25.

But, as we watched them pump home five goals on an 11-point night for the trio against a depleted Winnipeg lineup Thursday, it became clear that, perhaps, this is an experiment worth digging into a bit.

First off, there is a fatal flaw here:

Pity not the centreman who gets as his winger Nugent-Hopkins, an extraordinarily skilled, No. 1-overall draft pick who can both think and play the game at McDavid’s level. (And, with Leon Draisaitl at 2C, we would ask: If not on the wing, how would you fit Nugent-Hopkins into your top six?)

He is also a 55-60-point player barely in his prime at age 25, whose defensive game and growing faceoff prowess will undoubtedly help McDavid succeed.

As for Rattie, well, there is more meat on that bone, to be sure. But, what type of player would you want on the ice with two centremen — both excellent transporters and distributors of the puck — other than a finisher? A player who, for all his weaknesses, has the scoring gene.

“I’ve played against him since we were 14, 15 years old,” Nugent-Hopkins said of Rattie. “You get him the puck in the right spot, and he’s putting it in. No doubt about it.

“He has a nose for the net, but really, he has a nose for the right spots. A lot of times, you have it or you don’t. He definitely has it.”

Nugent-Hopkins makes $6 million. McDavid, $12.5 million.

If your solution is for the Oilers’ general manager to have gone out and secured, say, a James Neal at $5.75 million, we’d ask you this: Find us another NHL line that costs that much, and we’ll show you a dozen that feature two prime salaries, and someone making less than a million.

The Oilers are like every other NHL team — looking for a couple of Jake Guentzel’s or Conor Sheary’s. Guys who make less than a million — Rattie is on a one year, $800,000 deal — who can contribute.

Early on, it appears playing this goal scorer with two elite centremen might have some legs. That the chemistry might be sound.

“When you’re playing with two centremen, you don’t have to really worry about being low (in the defensive zone), ever,” McDavid said. “You can focus on point coverage and being good along the wall, and he’s done that.”

No one is more aware that Rattie has won hockey’s lottery than Rattie himself. He knows, if he can’t make this opportunity work, there likely won’t be another one.

“You can only have so many chances before the whole league just says, ‘Maybe he can’t do it,’” he said earlier in camp.

“He gets it,” McDavid said. “Maybe he’s not going to be the guy who carries the puck through the middle. … Now, he just gets pucks in Nuge and my hands, and finds the right area.”

It is true what they say, that hockey has become a game of duos. Wayne Gretzky had Jari Kurri. Adam Oates had Brett Hull. Niklas Backstrom has Alex Ovechkin. Henrik had Daniel.

Milan Lucic came to Edmonton to play with McDavid, and the projection did not pan out. Patrick Maroon was moderately successful in his stead, but neither have much in common with the quicker, more cerebral Nugent-Hopkins as McDavid’s go-to left-winger.

What kind of player does McDavid require?

“Someone who can just think the game. And skate,” McDavid said. “That’s what everyone wants to play with: a skater and a thinker. Usually if they can do that, they can do the other things, too.”

So, let’s extrapolate on that. Let’s go against the ‘out-of-position winger and AHL reject’ crowd for just a moment, and pretend this trio can give head coach Todd McLellan the faith to leave them together for en entire season.

“The coach would like that too, to be honest with you,” said McLellan.

I know. It sounds crazy.

But what happens to McDavid’s production if he gets the same weapons every night, and builds familiarity?

“I would love that,” McDavid said. “You can really work on strengthening your game, adding layers to your game. Adding plays that might throw teams off. When you’re always just covering basics with a new line, you never really get to go in-depth and really build on that line.”

Ah, what are we even talking about here? Two centremen and a guy who’s never done it before? That can’t possibly work in today’s NHL.

Can it?

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