Oilers should jump on opportunity to roll every line following Kane addition

Edmonton Oilers' Zach Hyman (18) celebrates his goal with teammate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) during first period NHL hockey action against the Montreal Canadiens, in Montreal, Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022. (Graham Hughes/CP)

KANATA, Ont. — Under the heading “No (doubt) Sherlock,” comes the following statement: The Edmonton Oilers have become utterly dependent on Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

But in doing so, it has hurt their team. Or at least, their forwards as a group, having two centremen who both play more minutes per game than any other forward in the National Hockey League, and also take the longest average shift among all NHL forwards.

The thinking in Edmonton has always been, when you have two talents like Draisaitl and McDavid, you have to play them a commensurate amount of minutes. So the team has basically one powerplay unit on which numbers 29 and 97 get roughly 1:45 of ice time on every powerplay. At even strength, the pair plays more than anyone else in the NHL as well, on a per-game basis.

But there is a trickle down, one that has a bit of a chicken or egg effect on these Oilers.

The knock on this group of Oiler forwards is that it isn’t deep enough, and it may not be. But we would ask, how can you tell, when the bottom third plays so little?

Can you look at a player who has played seven or eight minutes in a game, and accuse them of not having a big enough impact? Of not playing well enough, when it is a struggle just to maintain a sweat throughout the game?

"Seven or eight minutes is on the high side of things, in certain games," said Derek Ryan, who averages 11:04 of ice time per game, but just 8:59 at even strength. "It goes back to scoring first as well. When we get behind in games we want to play Connor and Leon more, and the fourth line guys seem to suffer from that."

With the new structure up front — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins now centres a third line with Zach Hyman and Zack Kassian that will command more ice time than head coach Dave Tippett has afforded previous third lines — the Oilers are doing what good teams must do. That is, spread out the minutes among 12 forwards.

"We all like to get our ice time," Draisaitl admitted over the weekend. "But … we have a lot of good players on our team. We all have to accept our roles, and play as a team."

If playing the third and fourth lines more is the solution, one aided by the acquisition of top line left-winger Evander Kane, then the de facto effect is to lessen the ice time of the two superstars.

"It’s hard," Ryan said of the conundrum. "I think we can all agree that in the long run we need depth, all 12 guys involved. After this (All-Star) break we’re going to be playing lots of hockey, and you can’t ride two guys — or two lines — the whole way. That holds true in playoffs too."

“I think it’s important that we roll everybody, get everybody involved. When you’re sitting (on the bench) for however long it is, and you’re expected to go out and produce, it makes it pretty hard.”

Have you ever heard anyone speak about a Stanley Cup winner and not sprinkle in some clichés about “rolling four lines,” or “every line coming over the boards plays the same way…?”

The players, they know. And not only are McDavid and Draisaitl happy to see a shift that could make this team more of a playoff team, perhaps with a couple less minutes of ice time they’ll be more formidable once they’re on the ice.

"You can run two lines as hard as you want," Kassian said. "You’re going to win in the regular season; you can get away with it a little bit. But like we saw last (post-season), you play a good, defensive, hard-checking team and it’s hard hockey. Playoff hockey is hard enough to play as it is — you need to be fresh when you go out there.

"Once you get into the meaningful games, you can’t just run two lines," he continued. "You can’t just run one guy for 25 minutes a night. Eventually he’ll break down."

"If our goal here is to win, that’s not a recipe for success."

Sure, with 3-0 and 4-1 leads over Montreal on Saturday, it was easy for Tippett to get his fourth line over 10 minutes of ice time. It’s different when you’re behind and in need of offence, which happens a lot on a team that scores first less than any other NHL club.

Adding Kane allowed Tippett to redistribute Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman to their own third line. Maybe if Dylan Holloway comes up around April 1, it pushes Hyman to the right side, Holloway to Nugent-Hopkins’ left, and Kassian to the fourth line with some combination of Devin Shore, Ryan McLeod and Ryan.

And perhaps, if those units get some ice time and some confidence, Tippett won’t have to be so quick to shorten his bench when his team is trailing.

"You don’t do it every night, depending on how the game goes. But to have the ability to (play four lines) is a good thing," Tippett said. "McDavid and Draisaitl, they’re going to drive their own lines. But to build depth, build a stronger presence all the way through our forwards, is as good thing for us."

It’s been an open secret across the NHL for a few years now. And not just the part that says, “stop Edmonton’s two stars and you stop the Oilers.”

The rest of the league also knows that Edmonton leans way too hard on their two stars because they don’t have enough talent underneath them in the lineup. Now, we would say, there is enough talent underneath to play four lines longer into a game.

It’s what good teams do.

“The teams that win have great depth – that’s a common theme,” said former Oiler Tyler Ennis. “Historically, Stanley Cup teams have had four lines that play. That should be a goal of every team, to have 12 forwards playing well.”

We’ll close on Kassian’s quote, as succinct and accurate as it is.

It’s time for change in Edmonton. Everyone knows the big boys play too much.

“If our goal here is to win, that’s not a recipe for success.”

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