How to handle the coaching conundrum of containing McDavid and Draisaitl

Gene Principe and Mark Spector discuss what to expect when the Oilers take on the Jets in the first round and how Connor McDavid has developed as a player.

EDMONTON — Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl centred separate lines at Monday’s practice, and will likely be deployed as such to open Game 1 of the playoffs on Wednesday.

It’s a conundrum when they play on separate lines, as an opposing coach needs to figure out which of the NHL’s two leading scorers — for the second straight season — gets his shutdown defensive pair.

When they play together, however, it presents an entirely different challenge.

So we asked around.

If you were coaching against the Oilers, which would you prefer?

“Play them on a line the whole time. I would prefer that,” said lifetime hockey coach Dave King. “But Tipp will change it up. He’ll keep them guessing.”

“You can control things at home if they’re together. Then your whole team’s focus can be on stopping them together,” said a former NHL coach who preferred not to be named. “Five-on-five, when they’re together it’s an easier matchup.”

Dave Tippett has coached 1,241 NHL games. He knows how hard it is to get the right matchups when you don’t have last change, and he’s watched McDavid (22 points in the season series) and Draisaitl (12 points) trash the Jets this season.

But he also knows that there are times in the game that he can send them over the boards as a unit. It’s common knowledge among his colleagues.

“There are some tendencies to it,” began Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “Home, road, off timeouts, after (penalty kills)… There are some places where it’s more likely that these two guys will come out together in these situations. Down a goal, those types of things.”

When discussing which deployment is more advantageous for Edmonton, I look at it this way: If Tippett starts them together, and the game isn’t going his way, he can go to Plan B.

But if he starts with Plan B and things aren’t going Edmonton’s way, then what?

Either way, we’re talking about an in-game change — which the Oilers are well prepared to deal with.

“That’s the reason why we’ve been doing it back and forth for a while. So that it is seamless,” Tippett said. “You throw them together, and away you go. And when they’re apart, you still have that rhythm in your lineup.

“There are situations where they can both be an advantage.”

McDavid never had anything less than a two-point game against the Jets this season, averaging 2.44 points per game. Draisaitl had seven goals in nine outings, leading Maurice to refer to them as “elite, freak-show talent.”

“For us to go in and trade (chances) … you have no chance,” he said. “Someone has done some analytics on when those guys play together and when they don’t, but I think you have to do bigger analytics on when they’re together, what does the whole team generate? When they’re apart?

“At the end of the day that number is going to be grotesquely high either way.”

So you’re working the Jets bench on Wednesday night, when the Oilers get last change. Is it more important to get your best checking line out against McDavid? Or the right defensive pairing?

“You can not make a mistake with who you put out on the blue line against them,” said our former coach. “Both blue-liners, for sure. You can’t have the wrong people out there on the back end.”

King agreed, with some caveats.

“Your first priority is your match-up defence pair. Then, when possible, you want your most appropriate five players,” he said. “And they have to have a mindset that they’re going to play solid defensive hockey.”

There lies one of the Jets’ biggest issues.

The Oilers have lit Winnipeg up this season, winning the last six straight games. Head to head, the analytics on the McDavid-Mark Scheifele matchup are steeply in McDavid’s favour.

You know that Maurice, throughout a 2-7 record against the Oilers this season, tried every idea in the book. The record shows, none of them really worked.

“You’re going to want to have one of your top six and top four against either of them when they’re together. One of them will have to take them, (because) we’re not going to change our lines when they change their lines. We can’t be operating on that because you can’t anticipate when it’s coming out.

“So, we’re going to have to be really, really good all the time.”

Here’s what Maurice can not do, our coaches all agree: Shelter Scheifele from the McDavid match-up.

“It sends a bad message to the rest of the team when you’re not playing your best players,” the former coach said. “Winnipeg’s top players have to take this challenge head on, because McDavid and Draisaitl, they’re not going to back off. And they know they’re better than everyone else.”

King agreed.

“Your players, they know. A lot of these guys are going to go on to become coaches, and they know more than we sometimes give them credit for,” he said. “You can’t acknowledge that one of your top guys can’t play against them. A guy like Scheifele, I am certain he would embrace playing against McDavid.”

So we’ll agree that Scheifele will see plenty of that matchup against McDavid, whether he’s playing with Draisaitl or without. It’s how he plays against McDavid that really matters.

“You can’t blind pass out, you can’t turn it over high… Gawd, it’s hard,” King acknowledged. “Because, what can you do? There has to be some risk for an attack to be successful, and you can’t tell a guy like Scheifele to just chip it in all the time. But in certain situations, that’s exactly what you have to do.”

For Tippett, it’s Plan A, or Plan B — and either one works quite fine. For Maurice, well, he’s on about Plan E or F when it comes to McDavid and Draisaitl.

He needs an answer and he needs one quick.

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