Years from now, we may look back on February 2nd as a key date in the history of Canadian hockey.
It marked the unveiling of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ new logo (their first such branding change since 1970), the return to dominance for Sidney Crosby (who scored his first hat-trick in three years and his first natural hat-trick since 2010), and — perhaps most importantly — the triumphant return of Connor McDavid.
After impressing during the first 13 games of his NHL career earlier this season, the 19-year-old phenom rejoined the Edmonton Oilers for their tilt against the Columbus Blue Jackets after finishing his recovery from a broken clavicle, suiting up for his first game since November 3rd.
While the Oilers faithful tried to temper expectations for the young star’s return, it was understandably difficult to not hope the recent first-overall pick could right the ship for the last-place club.
Unsurprisingly, McDavid didn’t disappoint.
Putting forth one of the most dominant performances of his young career, McDavid registered a goal and two assists in his first game back, marking his second three-point game in only 14 career contests. It wasn’t just the fact that he posted a good stat line, however, but that he did so like this:
While McDavid’s resurgence is surely good news for Edmonton, it also leads to a wider discussion of the direction the club should take in the future. Centrally, this issue concerns McDavid’s current linemate, Jordan Eberle.
McDavid and Eberle joined forces for the first time in Edmonton’s recent contest (which resulted in a 5–1 victory). It was not only the first time the two played on a line together, but in fact the first time they’ve ever played a game together, as Eberle’s return from a shoulder injury came one game after McDavid was taken out of the lineup.
While it’s still early, and the two still seem to be feeling each other out, the results were certainly there. The pair combined for five points, as Eberle added a goal and an assist to go along with McDavid’s three-point showing. Benoit Pouliot manned McDavid’s other wing, and the veteran posted two points as well (also a goal and an assist), taking the line’s total output to seven points and 10 total shots on goal.
The trio also dominated in terms of possession, finishing first, second, and third among all Oilers’ skaters in terms of Corsi For percentage during the victory over Columbus. Eberle led the way with a mark of 66.7 percent, followed by Pouliot’s 63.3 percent and McDavid’s 57.1 percent.
That being the case, it’s tough to argue that head coach Todd McLellan hasn’t found a reliable secondary trio to play behind the elite top-line duo of Taylor Hall and Leon Draisaitl.
It remains to be seen how McDavid and Eberle look together long-term, but assuming they can keep up the form they showed against Columbus (or at least play somewhere near that level once the adrenaline of returning to the NHL wears off for McDavid), the duo’s prowess may serve as bad news for another member of the Oilers’ core – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Nugent-Hopkins has unfortunately seemed like the odd man out for quite some time, as the former first-line center has had to deal with stellar showings from both McDavid and Draisaitl in 2015–16. That seemingly wouldn’t be an issue for Nugent-Hopkins, as he’s proven himself to be an elite centre in his own right, but the context of what his team requires and what he would fetch on the trade market continues to work against him.
This was made clear when it was revealed by Sportsnet’s Mark Spector that Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli did indeed offer up Nugent-Hopkins to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Seth Jones. The Predators opted for Columbus’ Ryan Johansen, leaving Nugent-Hopkins in limbo with the Oilers organization.
Now the situation has become even more tenuous as the pivot remains out with a hand injury, unable to make his case to stay in Edmonton. As it currently stands, a few things remain true.
First, the Oilers still hope to acquire some significant defensive help before 2016–17 (though they’ll likely do so during the offseason rather than at this season’s trade deadline). Secondly, Chiarelli seems more and more likely to trade one of the team’s core players to bring in that defensive help.
Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Eberle have long been the three rumoured to get that call. However, that crop has narrowed significantly this season. Hall has put forth one of the finest efforts of his career, posting 18 goals and 49 points through 51 games thus far, and looking like one of the most dangerous snipers in the league. He’s also developed some lethal chemistry with young pivot Draisaitl, giving McLellan a pairing to work with long-term.
That leaves Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle as potential trade options. However, if Eberle and McDavid continue to strike up some dangerous chemistry, this would continue to push Nugent-Hopkins towards the door. The central factor here isn’t that Nugent-Hopkins is a lesser forward (in fact, his status as an elite centerman is one of the key factors in trading him to acquire a talented defender), but rather that his position means fitting him in would bring significant change to the Oilers’ top-six once everyone is healthy.
With McDavid a lock to remain at centre, Nugent-Hopkins’ return would mean either moving Draisaitl to the wing – which could work, though the young German has looked very good playing in his natural center position – or moving Draisaitl out of the top-six altogether. Neither option seems great, considering the fact that Draisaitl and Hall were the team’s bright spots while McDavid was injured.
Thus, it seems if Eberle can make a case for himself as a long-term wing option for McDavid, the natural next step for Chiarelli would be making another push this summer to move out Nugent-Hopkins in exchange for a number-one defender. Edmonton will likely net a top pick in the 2016 NHL draft as well, meaning should they deal Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers could either add another elite young forward to make up for losing Nugent-Hopkins’ offensive talent, or add a strong defensive prospect like Jakob Chychrun to load up their back end with as much promise as their young forward corps.