Oilers looking for star centres to elevate wingers

Ken Hitchcock can't say enough good things about Connor McDavid talking with the coaching staff to discuss ideas and strategy for the team.

EDMONTON — For the Edmonton Oilers, it’s about the process of elimination.

“We’ve played our way out of a coach and we’ve played our way out of a GM now,” said captain Connor McDavid. “So, it’s obviously on us.”

Todd McLellan is long gone, Peter Chiarelli is freshly gone, and McDavid, well, he’s not going anywhere. So the players who are here, the ones who state the belief that this roster has enough juice to make the playoffs, are now officially on the clock.

For a team coming out of its extended all-star break with a 23-24-3 record — three points from a wild card spot but with five teams to pass — the Oilers have one true positive to cling to as they enter their final 32 games: No. 1 defenceman Oscar Klefbom is close to a return, which would fill a gaping hole on the blue-line and return every other D-man to their regular allotment of minutes.

He practiced with the team on Thursday, and spent the final 15 minutes as a non-participant after taking a stick to his broken finger. Klefbom was on the ice for Friday’s 9 a.m. workout before the team flew to Philadelphia, but was seen grimacing when handling the puck, and participated in drills only sporadically, according to those in attendance.

He broke a finger blocking a shot on Dec. 11, and as badly as the Oilers need him, a broken bone is usually a two-month injury at best. On Friday, Klefbom was seen grimacing while handling the puck, a sign that the vibration of his stick — an issue with composite sticks and broken fingers — is causing pain.

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Meanwhile, with his GM fired after two periods of the team’s final game before the all-star break, head coach Ken Hitchcock spent the past week trying to find a game plan that fits what he has here. And what exactly is that?

He has three excellent centremen, but not nearly enough wingers to go around. Whenever Klefbom becomes healthy, he has a passable top pairing alongside Adam Larsson, and a second pairing of Darnell Nurse and Kris Russell that can survive. And, he has a goaltending tandem with an .895 saves percentage — which is not nearly good enough. Period. Full stop.

In search of engaging more players for the stretch run, Hitchcock has separated centres McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on their own lines. It is a group of centremen we’d put up against any trio in hockey, yet they are severely mitigated by the quality of their wingers.

At practice Friday, McDavid’s wingers were Milan Lucic (five goals) and Ty Rattie (two goals).

Draisaitl got epic UFA failure Tobias Rieder (zero goals) and savvy PTO pick-up Alex Chiasson (17 goals) as his wingers.

Nugent-Hopkins sets up between Jujhar Khaira (three goals) and fourth-liner Zack Kassian (five goals).

Keep in mind — Edmonton has played 50 games. Those six wingers have scored 32 goals in 300 man-games, and 53 percent of those are Chiasson’s. The other five wingers are averaging three goals apiece through 50 games this season.

It’s easy to understand Hitchcock’s reasoning: All three centremen are on pace for career years, points-wise. So he’s trying to place more struggling wingers in close proximity to thriving centremen, hoping the playmaking skills of the pivots will wear off.

Yet, he’ll also be watching to see if the wingers’ futility begins to dull those centremen.

“Chemistry looks good on paper, and you want to stay with it. But we’re on a game-by-game basis and we’ve got to adjust accordingly,” Hitchcock said of his line combinations. “These are lines that we like, (but) depending on the score clock, we’ll condense things.

“We’d like to be able to stay with this. We’d like to take this as long as we can into every game, and not have to force our hand. But we’re prepared to make the changes necessary to get the wins.”

Whether or not the Oilers can be one of the two teams out of seven in the West to emerge as wild cards will depend primarily on two things. One, they simply need better goaltending. Two, if the centres upwardly influence the wingers, the ensuing production will give them a chance.

If the opposite occurs, and Hitchcock is forced back to the lines from before the all-star break, well, that deployment produced an Oilers team that is a game under .500. So why would it be any different in the final 32 games than it was in the first 50?

“We need more participation by more people,” the coach said. “This is a great opportunity for them and we’re hoping some guys take the ball and really run with it.”

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