Separating McDavid, Draisaitl necessary for Oilers’ long-term success

Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) and Leon Draisaitl (29) celebrate a goal against the Buffalo Sabres during second period NHL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Monday, January 14, 2019. (Jason Franson/CP)

TORONTO — It’s no longer a question, or a topic of discussion inside the dressing room. For the Edmonton Oilers to get where they’ve been trying to go for years, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have to play on separate lines.

It’s that simple.

“For us to be a good team — a better team — yes,” states Zack Kassian, the one player who has spent the most time with the duo in recent years. “When they’re together, they’re very dynamic. But when you play them apart it’s tough for opposing teams to get the matchup they want.

“I think it makes us a better team, with them apart.”

If you’re trailing after 40 minutes and not much is going on, then sure — come out in the third period with a Draisaitl-McDavid line. That’s a bullet you have when you play them apart, and one you surrender when you play them together.

“Look at the Pittsburgh model,” Kassian said. “(Sidney) Crosby carries his line, (Evgeni) Malkin carries his. One of them is not going to have (to face) the top D pairing, one of them is not going to have the top checking line. It makes us a better team — a more balanced attack in the Top 6. And if you’re behind you always have that bullet, that dynamic to switch things around.

“They’re going to get their powerplay time together — they’re out there for the full two minutes. They play together four-on-four. But from a team standpoint it makes us a better team, and that’s what we’re trying to build here. We’re trying to get into the playoffs and make some noise.”

We’ve watched over the past few years as head coaches Todd McLellan, then Ken Hitchcock, and now Dave Tippett danced the dance of the under-staffed Oilers coach, separating the two when it became clear that the support scoring just wasn’t there, then reuniting them when it became obvious that neither player could be maximized without the other as a linemate.

This time, however, it feels different.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins seems to work well on Draisaitl’s left wing — better than the other way around — and Kailer Yamamoto was ready when called up from Bakersfield to play the right side. McDavid and Kassian are comfortable together, and James Neal is working on the left side on that line (although, it’s reasonable to suspect that if GM Ken Holland could find a faster winger with Top 6 chops at the trade deadline, he may replace Neal).

Why is it working now, when it never has before?

“A lot of the credit is due to Yamamoto,” said McDavid, who has 2-4-6 and is plus-5 in four games apart from Draisaitl. “He’s come up and provided some energy for our group, and he’s played really well. A lot of credit is due to him.”

Yamamoto scored his second goal in four games and played nearly 15 minutes in Toronto on Monday. He’s tenacious and without fear, using his small frame and quick feet to get inside on bigger players and steal pucks that you wouldn’t think he should be able to steal.

If Yamamoto’s play continues like this, he becomes that extra Top 6 player that Edmonton has been searching for to give both of its elite centres enough wingers to be able to produce.

“Yamo’s given us a little balance there,” Tippett said, “and Leon likes playing with him, a good sign. When you add a guy to your lineup who becomes a regular guy who contributes, it makes you a better team.”

The key text in that quote is when Tippett says, “Leon likes playing with him.”

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Why is the separation working so well this time? First and foremost, Draisaitl is ready to try and thrive at five-on-five without McDavid.

He always said he’d do that, no problem. But before, Draisaitl’s body language and production suggested differently — particularly when both would noticeably perk up upon being reunited with his preferred centreman.

It never seemed as much a McDavid thing as it was a Draisaitl thing. But with Nugent-Hopkins and Yamamoto for the past four games now, Draisaitl has regained his game. And he’s produced, scoring in three of the four games, adding three assists, and significantly improving his defensive game.

The big guys seem accepting of the change, further evidence that it is simply accepted inside this team that this line deployment is the necessary one.

Have the big guys accepted it?

“Draisaitl and McDavid are accepting of winning,” said Tippett. “They’re on board with anything we have to do to try and win. They understand, the deeper team we can get — the more depth we have — the harder it becomes for teams to key on individual guys.”

It’s different, this time around. And when Holland finds the right left winger at the deadline or over the summer to round out his Top 6 — Taylor Hall, perhaps? — it will mark the moment the Oilers become a playoff team, long-term.

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