Five key lineup questions the Oilers must address before the playoffs

EDMONTON — As defenceman Mattias Ekholm said after Thursday’s 8-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres, it’s coming down to “crunch time” for the Edmonton Oilers. And there are things to sort out.

The final score flattered the Oilers. Sure, they got better as the game wore on and bludgeoned the Sabres in the third period with five unanswered goals. But the opening frame and significant stretches of the first 40 minutes weren’t up to their standard.

“We have a mature group in here,” Ekholm said. “Usually, we know when we’ve played good or bad. There are lessons hopefully learned from that first (period).”

They played well enough to keep up with the Sabres after trailing 2-0 before blowing past them thanks to signature offensive efforts from many of their best players.

Connor McDavid had four assists and is 14 away from 100 on the season. Zach Hyman scored twice and is up to 48 goals, two shy of 50 heading into Saturday’s game in Toronto against his former team in his hometown. Ekholm and Leon Draisaitl each had three points.

Still, it was the second straight outing — following a 3-2 overtime win over Montreal on Tuesday — they won despite not collectively bringing their best.

“It’s nice to learn lessons in wins,” McDavid said. “With that being said, two games that could have gone the other way, quite frankly.”

The Oilers have 15 games left on their schedule. That’s just enough time to work out the kinks heading into the playoffs.

The feeling is the Oilers are close to their top gear, but they’re not there yet.

“There’s a sorting out process after the (trade) deadline and these last 15 games is where you really ramp up your game and you figure out how you’re going to win,” Hyman said. “We have a really good sense of what our identity is and how we’re going to win.

“We’re in a good spot.”

Coach Kris Knoblauch said he’d like to start test-driving his preferred postseason forward lines and defence pairings once the calendar flips over to April.

There are roles still to be determined after the arrivals of Adam Henrique, Sam Carrick and Troy Stecher earlier this month.

“You check your ego at the door,” veteran winger Corey Perry said. “It doesn’t matter where you play, how much you play, as long as the team’s winning. That’s all that matters when playoffs come around.”

“We’ve made some great additions, and everybody’s starting to get comfortable,” Hyman said. “A couple weeks (to) a month after the deadline, you’re really trying to figure out: What’s your ideal lineup? What makes the most sense for your team? Who should go where? What should happen?”

Exactly. That means there are key questions that need to be addressed over the next five games or so. Here are five of them:

Should Nugent-Hopkins and Henrique form a duo?

Knoblauch’s desire is for Henrique, the Oilers’ prized deadline acquisition, to be his shutdown centre. That isn’t set in stone, but it’s pretty close.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, an excellent two-play forward, has played with Henrique for two games now as a winger. Thursday’s game went even better than the Montreal one even though the line was held pointless at five-on-five. They played with Perry against Buffalo rather than Derek Ryan.

“That line was our best line in the first period,” Knoblauch said.

But is this the best spot for RNH?

His production is way down from his 104-point season a year ago – he has 59 points in 66 games – but he’s still got his offensive chops. He can be the defensive conscience on a line in the top six, too.

It’s something Knoblauch and his staff will have to figure out.

At least Nugent-Hopkins seems to have the right approach for playing with Henrique and against top scoring lines.

“You want to play in the O zone as much as possible,” he said. “You don’t want to let them have any opportunity in your zone.

“It’s about limiting their opportunities there – and off the rush, too.”

Where is the best spot for Kane?

There aren’t many players like Evander Kane when he’s on his game.

He can hit like a freight train. He can get under opponents’ skins with his motor mouth. Most importantly, he can score goals at will as was so evident for the back half of the 2021-22 season and in those playoffs.

That unique mix Kane can bring has been missing for much of this season. He hasn’t found the back of the net in more than a month — a span of 15 games in which he has just three assists. His last goal came Feb. 19 at Arizona.

Kane was used in Nugent-Hopkins’ spot next to McDavid and Hyman for most of the Montreal game and up until late in the second period against the Sabres. Inserting Draisaitl and removing Kane changed the Oilers’ fate.

Per Natural Stat Trick, McDavid and Hyman both played just over seven minutes at five-on-five with each of Kane and Draisaitl. With Kane, they were outshot 8-3, out-attempted 11-6 and outscored 2-1. With Draisaitl, shots favoured the Oilers 10-1, attempts were 16-4 and goals were 3-0.

What a difference.

Kane’s been used with Henrique on the third line. He spent 2:16 with Ryan McLeod and Warren Foegele after the Draisaitl switch.

It’s a smart bet that Kane will get more time with McDavid in games ahead, but that’s far from a certainty.

“I don’t think I’ve found him a spot and he’s going to stay there,” Knoblauch said Wednesday.

One thing’s for sure: Kane must start producing either with McDavid or away from him. The Oilers need him to get going.

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What should the Oilers do with Leon Draisaitl, Warren Foegele and Ryan McLeod? (Eric Bolte / USA TODAY Sports)

Should McLeod and Foegele keep playing with Draisaitl?

If Draisaitl isn’t with McDavid or Hyman — an excellent offensive line but one that thins the team’s depth — he’s had the most success with McLeod and Foegele.

As a trio, they’ve outscored the opposition 12-4 in 143 minutes this season. They’ve showed a ton of chemistry together.

However, there’s a dilemma. In the playoffs, can one of Nugent-Hopkins and Kane not be in the top six? That’s what would happen if both McLeod and Foegele are there because McDavid, Draisaitl and Hyman aren’t going anywhere.

Should the Kulak-Ceci pairing remain together?

It was a better showing for the third pair of Brett Kulak and Cody Ceci, but there’s still much room for improvement.

Goals were even at two apiece at five-on-five when they were on the ice. That’s in a lopsided victory. The two Oilers goals they are were on the ice for came in garbage time, too.

Overall, they’ve been outscored 8-5 at five-on-five in nine games together. That’s while the Oilers have gone 6-1-2.

Vincent Desharnais is expected to return from a hand injury at some point during Edmonton’s upcoming three-game road trip. It’s likely he’ll take his spot next to Darnell Nurse and Stecher will come out of the lineup.

Knoblauch hinted at Stecher getting some more action soon, though. The way things have been going, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for him to get at least some playing time ahead of Ceci.

Should Broberg and/or Holloway play games?

Knoblauch’s been clear that he considers Philip Broberg to be his fourth option on left defence. Even though the right-handed Stecher has lots of experience on his weak side, playing him there will happen only as a necessity. That was the case when Ekholm had to sit out because of an illness last Wednesday against Washington.

Colleague Allan Mitchell wrote earlier this week about the benefits of getting Broberg into games late this season. He’s not wrong. The Oilers are one injury away from putting him into a playoff game when he hasn’t played an NHL contest since Nov. 22 — and hasn’t suited up in one without seven defencemen since Oct. 17.

The Oilers are getting Stecher NHL playing time when they consider him their No. 4 right defenceman. Why not Broberg? They have the cap space to bring him up from AHL Bakersfield whenever they want. GM Ken Holland said before the deadline he expected Broberg to get a chance. Getting him a couple games before the month’s end would only be helpful for all involved.

The Dylan Holloway case is a little different. He was playing regularly until Henrique and Carrick were brought in on March 6, which resulted in a demotion to Bakersfield. The Oilers should know what they have in his player.

It’s more a question of if they need an element he brings. The Oilers are the oldest team in the league. It’s easy to forget they’re not exactly fast even despite McDavid’s and McLeod’s blazing speed. Holloway would inject youthfulness and pace. That Knoblauch didn’t use him on either special team before he was sent down limited his impact, though.

(Top photo of Evander Kane: Justin Berl / Getty Images)

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