By Allan Mitchell
Dec 18, 2019
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
The Edmonton Oilers are blessed with two of the best young impact players in the game in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. They are the top two scorers in the NHL and have flip-flopped the lead several times since the beginning of October. Headlines jump between “McDavid and Draisaitl lead Oilers to victory” and “Oilers big guns denied in a loss” depending on the outcome. As goes McDavid-Draisaitl, so goes the Oilers.
As gifted as both men are, the top line (usually completed with fast, rambunctious winger Zack Kassian) has some issues, often in moments spent without the puck. Edmonton’s long run of gifted first-round picks have mostly been offensive juggernauts without much in the way of two-way ability (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins being the exception).
One of the things Edmonton may have to look at in the future is a designated defensive conscience for the trio. What would that look like? Who would be the ideal candidate? How many player-types who fit are there in the NHL? Are any of these ideal solutions on the Oilers roster at this time? Let’s have a look.
Shot and goal suppressionIf you’re looking for a good two-way forward to use as an ideal, Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins is a good choice. His NHL career shows just how important a player who can play a 200-foot game can be to success. According to Natural Stat Trick, Bergeron has been a splendid two-way centre since 2007-08 (NST’s numbers don’t go back to Bergeron’s rookie season).
At 5-on-5, Bergeron’s shots against per 60 has exceeded 30 just once, while being under 25 three times. His goals against per 60 at 5-on-5 has exceeded 2.50 just once, while that number has been below 2.00 a total of six times.
That’s a difficult set of numbers to reach but it gives us an idea about the top end. Here are five forwards who are generally regarded as quality two-way forwards and their shots against and goals against numbers (per 60) so far this year at 5-on-5 (sorted by shots against):
There are all kinds of forces that cause these numbers to slide up and down during a season. These include playing on mediocre teams and with lesser linemates. It’s also true that a button-down team style can aid these numbers. The names above don’t represent anything more than a sample of effective two-way forwards. Now, let’s have a look at the current Oilers top performers in each category, sorted by shots against per 60:
The numbers here suggest that Nugent-Hopkins is the most reliable defensively among the ‘big three’ forwards currently employed in Edmonton, especially considering the quality of linemates. McDavid and Draisaitl, brilliant young offensive players, suppress a lot of opposition offence with their outstanding skill. However, they are also playing much of the game at 5-on-5 against the opposition’s best. As they mature, both McDavid and Draisaitl will improve these numbers with better reads and by learning more about recognizing danger early. Considering the game states the two men are currently performing in, these numbers are reasonable but could be improved. It’s a process. Now let’s answer those questions from earlier.
What would a button-down third forward look like? When Jari Kurri arrived in the NHL, he took a period of time to adjust to the game. Very quickly, within two years, Kurri had established himself as a quality two-way winger even though he was both an impact scorer and a young player. Oilers assistant coach Bill Harris was trumpeting Kurri’s 200-foot game by the spring of 1982, before Kurri had completed two seasons with Edmonton.
Kurri’s brilliance in a two-way role was a key element in the success of the Oilers top line during the glory days of the 1980s. Wayne Gretzky kept the puck in the opposition end most of the time, but if there were leaks Kurri was the defensive conscience of the trio.
McDavid and Draisaitl aren’t consistent 200-foot players currently, but may get there over time (there’s clearly a desire on the part of both to improve). Ideally, the Oilers will be able to identify a quality forward who can play a complementary offensive role and do the defensive work for Edmonton’s top trio.
Who would be the ideal candidate?From the modern era, I’ll point to power forward Marian Hossa as being the perfect match for McDavid-Draisaitl. His shots against and goals against rates at 5-on-5 were brilliant from the moment he arrived in Pittsburgh to his final shift in Chicago.
How many player-types who fit the definition are there in the NHL?There are several players who fit a loose definition of the two-way winger we’re discussing here. Below I’m using Puck IQ for percentage of time spent against elites and NST for shots and goals against per 60.
Rickard Rakell of the Anaheim Ducks is a nice match for what we’re looking for, his shots against (27.22) is strong and his goals against per 60 (2.68) is rock solid considering he spends 38.6 percent of his 5-on-5 time against elites.
Teuvo Teravainen of the Carolina Hurricanes is another good fit, he plays 43.5 percent of his time against elites and his shots against (25.75) and goals against (2.03) are quality.
Marcus Foligno of the Minnesota Wild plays 30 percent of his 5-on-5 time against elites, and his shots against per 60 (24.55) and goals against per 60 (1.52) are in the range. His emergence as this player type didn’t occur until he arrived in Minnesota and he is not a big offensive producer.
J.T. Miller of the Vancouver Canucks has a somewhat inconsistent track record but there’s no doubt he can play a two-way role. His shots against (27.09) and goals against (2.01) per 60 comes while playing against elites 33.3 percent of his 5-on-5 time.
Alex Killorn of the Tampa Bay Lightning is an effective player in this role and has been for many years. He is playing 37.1 of his 5-on-5 time against elites this season and suppressing shots to a 29.19 per 60 rate and his goals against per 60 is 2.23.
The Lightning often offload a veteran due to oncoming quality that needs to be signed; Killorn might be a solid option at some point. He has a contract that delivers a cap hit of $4.45 million through 2022-23. The issue with the other players listed is availability, with only Foligno being a player who is deployed outside a feature role for his team.
Are any ideal solutions on the Oilers roster at this time?The short answer is no, although Nugent-Hopkins has served as McDavid’s defensive conscience at times since 2015. For most of this decade Edmonton has been drafting top-end offensive talent with the top picks and the only player with a defensive resume was Nugent-Hopkins.
The final piece for the perfect fitMcDavid and Draisaitl are getting better at reading plays and identifying danger, but neither man is going to be a checker for the next 15 years (if ever). Kassian has proven to be an effective addition to the group and is scoring at a terrific rate this year. Chances are Edmonton will need to draft and develop the long-term solution. Among the team’s top prospects, Tyler Benson likely has the greatest range of skills.
If the Oilers are going to tighten up defensively, the No. 1 line will eventually need to be more successful at shot and goal suppression. The names mentioned in this article are attractive (Rakell would be an astounding plug and play addition) but that dream is unlikely to become reality.
A two-way winger for the top line isn’t the No. 1 roster priority for Ken Holland, as Kassian is doing a fine job with McDavid and Draisaitl. Once this team starts winning a playoff berth each spring, it’s likely we see new attention paid to what is being given up along with what is being delivered.