Oilers' revamped third line providing much-needed balance

Edmonton Oilers' Warren Foegele (37), Derek Ryan (10) and Cody Ceci (5) celebrate a goal against there Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL pre-season action in Edmonton on Thursday, October 7, 2021. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON — Why exactly did the Winnipeg Jets sweep the Edmonton Oilers out of the playoffs last spring? The short answer is simple: because they were the better team.

But dig deeper. Why were the Jets a better team? What made them better?

And of those elements, which ones did Edmonton general manager Ken Holland address over the summer and which ones are going to take longer to fix?

Here’s one: Holland isn’t going to find an equal to Connor Hellebuyck in goal anytime soon. You don’t just go out and find a Vezina-calibre, Olympic team goalie in the free agent market, or via trade. Holland’s goalies are his goalies, and until the trade deadline — when he may be able to export Mikko Koskinen’s ridiculous contract in a deal — he has enough in Koskinen and Mike Smith to be a playoff team.

The two major factors that have left Edmonton wanting in the post-season are depth at forward, experience on defence, and the lack of a proficient third-line centre. Their third line in that playoff series last spring opened the series Ryan McLeod between James Neal and Zack Kassian, and by the end of the series had morphed into Devin Shore between Jujhar Khaira and Alex Chiasson.

Today, head coach Dave Tippett is running out a third line of veteran faceoff man Derek Ryan between six-foot-two left winger Warren Foegele with the six-foot-three Kassian on the right side. Ryan has gone 62.2 per cent in the circle through his first three games as an Oiler.

Ostensibly, the Oilers have gone from having two legit lines and a mish-mash of players in their Bottom 6, to having three defined lines, and a fourth line with a collection of players who do what fourth-line players are supposed to do.

But this third line? It’s a major improvement to the Oilers’ attack.

“As a line, we read off each other great,” said Kassian, who had a pair of goals in a 6-5 win over Anaheim on Tuesday that ran Edmonton’s record to 3-0. “We’re playing a good North-South game right now. We’re playin’ heavy, we’re skatin’, and we’re hard to handle in the O-zone.

“If we continue that … we’re going to be a tough line to handle all year.”

It’s a proper third line filled with legit third-line NHL players. The unit has a true identity — not like the lines Tippett has staffed with guys like the inconsistent Khaira, the light Gaetan Haas, a foot speed-challenged Chiasson or an aimless and oft-injured Kassian over the past two seasons.

Kassian should never be in your Top 6. He’s a Bottom 6 winger, and teams that have players in their proper positions are always the best ones, by season’s end.

“That line feels like they have a real role on our team, playing hard down low. Get pucks going to the net…” Tippett said. “They’ve had some early success with it that has driven some of the energy for our group, and they’ve taken on an identity that they don’t want to let the anybody down. It’s early, but it’s good to see.”

Last season Holland had too many right-shot defencemen with an offensive bent to their game. When Adam Larsson left for Seattle, Holland realized he couldn’t have a right side with two sub-six-footers like Tyson Barrie and Ethan Bear. So he moved Bear for Foegele, trading a good player to get a good player.

“We play the same game,” Kassian said of Foegele. “When we’re at out our best, we’re direct and chipping pucks — and we can get it back because we have speed. Then, once we get down there, we have the ability to make plays, bring it to the net and create havoc.”

On the blue line, Edmonton opened the Jets series with Dimitri Kulikov on the left side of the second pairing. Today that position is held by Duncan Keith, who is simply a far better — and far healthier — defenceman. Thus far, Keith’s partner Cody Ceci appears not to be a big drop-off from the departed Larsson.

By the end of that series, Kris Russell was on the second pair. Today, Russell is the Oilers No. 7, behind a third pairing of Slater Koekkoek and Evan Bouchard, an upgrade on the right side from Bear both in size and ability. And again, Russell is where he should be, not playing above his head.

Bouchard stepped up to the top pair with Darnell Nurse on Tuesday, taking some ice time from a struggling Tyson Barrie as Edmonton tried to hold a lead. So far, Bouchard looks like a Top 4 D-man, despite being employed on the third pairing for now.

“He’s a solid, smart player. He reads situations well, usually executes pretty well, calm with the puck…,” Tippett said. “Engaged in the physical battles, which is the biggest (sign) of the maturity of his game. He’s not running anybody over, but he’s using his body position well to box people out.

“He’s a good player.”

That’s the answer, right there.

Why are the Oilers a better team this season? More good players, that’s why.

Not too complex, is it?

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