A huge factor in whether the Oilers have success, outside of the top line with Connor McDavid, is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ results on the Oilers’ second line.
Nugent-Hopkins and James Neal started 2019-20 strong. They won the shot battle and came out ahead in goals early on. That hasn’t continued and Dave Tippett and the Oilers are left with a problem that has plagued the team for the past few years: how can you build a formidable second line with Nugent-Hopkins if McDavid and Leon Draisaitl play together?
McDavid and Draisaitl are fantastic together, there’s no doubt about that. Nugent-Hopkins gets the leftovers when the superstars are paired on the first line and that hasn’t been enough to tilt the ice in the Oilers’ favour. This has mostly been the case since 2016-17.
How many top-six players has Nugent-Hopkins played with? I count four: Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Leon Draisaitl, and Connor McDavid. The past three seasons? Two: Draisaitl and McDavid. Otherwise, it’s a ragtag group of bottom-six players. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not every player in a team’s top six is going to be a top-six player on their own merit. By virtue of the salary cap, teams need to spread the wealth around, which is why Zack Kassian is on the first line.
There’s no point relitigating Chiarelli’s mistakes, but the loss of Eberle and Hall hurt Nugent-Hopkins. Nugent-Hopkins’ career year came unsurprisingly when McDavid was his most common linemate five-on-five. He doesn’t have a linemate of that calibre in 2019-20.
James Neal and Alex Chiasson aren’t enough. Nugent-Hopkins and Neal were doing as well as you can expect in October. Nugent-Hopkins-Neal got 55-percent of the shot attempts and outscored the opposition 5-4 five-on-five. Since November, however, they’ve generated 48 percent of the shot attempts and have been outscored 2-7. Chiasson and Nugent-Hopkins have been a surprisingly strong duo. Together Nugent-Hopkins and Chiasson get nearly 55-percent of the shot attempts and 50 percent of the goals. Th
The simple solution is to build a second line around Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl. McDavid is a generational player. He can get results playing with lesser players. They won’t get McDavid-Draisaitl results, but neither has any combination of leftover forwards and Nugent-Hopkins. Together the Oilers have outscored teams 4-2 with Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins, however, that includes two goals scored with McDavid as well. Removing McDavid from the equation and the Oilers only get 41 percent of the shot attempts and 50 percent of the goals with Draisaitl-Nugent-Hopkins and no help from McDavid.
Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl should be a better duo than they have been the past two seasons. Two players this skilled and well-paid should perform away from McDavid. One caveat is Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl haven’t played a lot of minutes together. Their time together amounts to a few games here and there. The most they spent together included Hall in the 2015-16 season. It’s entirely possible their 2018-20 results aren’t indicative of their true talent. The Oilers need more options than simply loading up the first line with McDavid and Draisaitl and hoping the rest of the roster can tread water.
Best of all, playing Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl on a line behind McDavid doesn’t require assets sent out for a trade acquisition. That leaves McDavid with leftovers to drag around, but he’s far more suited to that role than either Draisaitl or Nugent-Hopkins.
McDavid plays just fine without Draisaitl or Nugent-Hopkins for most of his career, save for 2018-19. McDavid generates good shot numbers and outscores the opposition well enough. He doesn’t need another elite forward on his line. Sure, it would be nice, but the lack of scoring forwards means Tippett should explore other combinations.
Whether it’s Draisaitl or another forward acquired via trade, Nugent-Hopkins needs help on the second line. He can’t do it with the likes of Chiasson, Neal, and Gagner.