Three lessons from the Gretzky era on who might work best on Connor McDavid's line

 

 
 
 
 
Who will be on Connor McDavid’s line this year? It’s a question that has gripped Edmonton hockey circles for months now.
 
 

Who will be on Connor McDavid’s line this year? It’s a question that has gripped Edmonton hockey circles for months now.

Photograph by: Darren Calabrese, Edmonton Journal

Who will be on Connor McDavid’s line this year? It’s a question that has gripped Edmonton hockey circles for months now.

Of course, McDavid will most likely play with most of the Oilers top forwards this season. Coach Todd McLellan will likely tinker as he figures out what works best both for McDavid and the other Oilers lines.

But there’s also the hope that McDavid will develop a special chemistry with a certain linemate or two, one that will elevate both their games, the kind of chemistry Oilers fans saw between Shawn Horcoff,Ales Hemsky and Ryan Smyth, or Doug Weight and Bill Guerin, or going way back, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson, or, yes, Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri.

I’ve been reluctant to bring up Gretzky as a point of comparison to McDavid. The NHL has greatly changed and McDavid isn’t Gretzky, he’s McDavid. At the same time, I’m going to explore the issue of which players thrived with Gretzky, and vice versa, because it can shed some light on which players might thrive with McDavid, and vice versa.

Gretzky and McDavid are both generational talents, centres who dominate the puck and love to pass, but can also score. They’re both blessed with exceptional passing skills. They’re both offence-oriented players. McDavid is bigger than Gretzky, and a slightly more physical player, but he has dominated through skill, not power. So what worked with Gretzky in terms of linemates might well with work McDavid.

Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers made up for his relative lack of size with an elusive skating style and an uncanny ability to figure out where the puck was going to be.

1078-79. Gretzky 104 points, Blair MacDonald, 71 points, Brett Callighen, 70 points.

In his first pro season in the World Hockey Association, when Gretzky turned 18 half-way through the season, Oilers coach Glen Sather simply teamed him up with two best wingers on the team, both smart and skilled two-way players. Callighen, 25, was scrappy, MacDonald, 24, a finesse winger. The two weren’t close to Gretzky in skill, but had a head for the game.

1979-80. Gretzky, 137 points, MacDonald, 94, Callighen, 58.

The line continued to click in the NHL, with MacDonald scoring 46 goals. Dave Lumley, a tough, smart winger, scored 58 points that year and got time now and then with Gretzky.

1980-81, Gretzky, 164 points, Jari Kurri, 75, Callighen, 60, MacDonald, 43 (traded to Vancouver).

Kurri, a 20-year-old rookie from Finland, supplanted MacDonald on Gretzky’s line. It was a gutsy move from Sather to go with a European rookie, but the Oilers coach had a vision of a more criss-crossing, open, flowing game, one that would create chaos and fear for opposing defenders as they tried to track Gretzky.

Kurri had a better shot than MacDonald, was more solid on his skates and, most importantly, had better offensive instincts to play the flow game. He took great advantage of defenders being drawn to Gretzky. Kurri would find open spaces where he could take a pass and get off a shot.

1981-82, Gretzky, 212 points, Kurri, 86, Lumley, 74, Semenko, 24, Callighen, 27.

The cagey Callighen’s career ended too soon with an eye injury. Gretzky and Kurri’s chemistry continued to develop, but Sather sometimes liked to slot in a tougher player like Lumley, or even enforcer Dave Semenko on the left wing. Whenever a winger joined Gretzky and Kurri, their scoring took off, leading to the observation that even a fire hydrant could score goals playing with Gretzky.

Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson

1982-83, Gretzky 196, Kurri, 104, Lumley, 24, Semenko, 27

Gretzky and Kurri were now in high gear, especially on two-on-ones, Gretzky roaring down the right wing, threatening to shoot, but invariably passing over to the left wing to Kurri, who had set up for a one-timer with his right-hand shot.

No player established himself as the left winger on this line that season. Glenn Anderson sometimes slotted in with Gretzky, I should add, though the two rarely played on a line for extended periods, Sather preferring to go with Anderson and Mark Messier on a devastating second line.

Messier was also a winger in his young years, but he never played much with Gretzky either. Messier’s game was about speed/power, while Gretzky’s was about skill/puck sense. Perhaps the fit wasn’t there.

1983-84, Gretzky, 205, Kurri, 113, Pat Hughes, 55, Jaroslav Pouzar, 32, Lumley, 21.

More of the same, with Gretzky and Kurri thriving with an assortment of partners, but no one taking hold of the left-wing spot. By now Kurri’s defensive game had blossomed. He was no bruiser, but a smothering checker.

Mike Krushelnyski

1984-85, Gretzky 208, Kurri, 135, Mike Krushelnyski, 88 pts.

Sather brought in the best left-winger he’d yet found for Gretzky in tall, lanky Krushelnyski, 24, who was strong at puck protecting, board work and screening the goalie. Kurri’s game took off with Krushelnyski doing the line’s dirty jobs.

1985-86, Gretzky, 215, Kurri, 131, Krushelnyski, 40, Esa Tikkanen, 13.

Krushelnyski was slowed by injury and Sather started to turn to a young, pesky, skilled winger, Esa Tikkanen, 20. Tikkanen is remembered as an agitator, but he had a tremendous amount of puck sense. Finesse Finn Raimo Summanen (an earlier version of Robert Nilsson) also got a shot on the big line, but failed to click.

1986-87, Gretzky, 183, Kurri, 108, Tikkanen, 78

This was the best Gretzky line, three extremely smart hockey players, Tikkanen doing a lot of the defensive dirty work, but all three combining with a high amount of skill and puck sense.

Esa Tikkanen, best left winger to play with Gretzky regularly on Oilers

1987-88, Gretzky, 149, Kurri, 96, Tikkanen, 74

Gretkzy got injured and missed 18 games his season, but again this line was superlative, leading the Oilers to Gretzky’s fourth and final Stanley Cup win.

Lessons learned?

  1. The most important thing McLellan has to find to team up with McDavid is a sniper, someone who can get open when all opponents are drawn to McDavid, then bury a shot when he gets that sweet pass. If Sniper X can also become an adept defender, he can fashion a long career in what might well be the best sidekick role in hockey for the next five-to-ten seasons.
  2. A tough, gritty winger with less skill can slot in with McDavid and Sniper X against bigger, tougher teams.
  3. The best bet to go with McDavid/Sniper X is a smart, cagey, scrappy winger with some offensive skill, a lot of puck sense and a willingness to defend and do the dirty work in front of the net and along the boards.

Who are the best bets to work this year with McDavid? I don’t know if McDavid will find his Kurri this season, but the best bet is Jordan Eberle. Eberle can set up on the off-wing for one-timers as all defenders are drawn to McDavid as he slips, slides, darts and dekes.

Taylor Hall looks like he’ll be given an opportunity with McDavid. That makes some sense given Hall’s elite offensive talents, but I wonder if Hall isn’t better suited to lead the second line. He’s a speed/power player. That said, in major junior, Hall was adept at finding unchecked areas in the offensive zone and setting up for one-timer shots. Perhaps he and McDavid will make that work.

As I’ve written before, it might be wise to use McDavid in a hybrid position as a rookie, which would mean having him attack like a rover, going where he wants, but having him on the wing in the defensive zone, with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as his center. This defensive alignment is often how  Erie played it with McDavid in major junior.

RNH is a smart, gritty two-way player who might well thrive with McDavid. That said, a second line with RNH and Hall on it, with McDavid and Eberle on the top line, is a mighty tempting proposition.

When it comes to slotting in a tough guy with McDavid, Benoit Pouliot and Luke Gazdic will no doubt get a chance to play their respective Lumley/Semenko roles.

And what of Nail Yakupov? He’s got a blistering shot. Could he become that sniper on the McDavid line?

Again, it’s likely Yakupov will get that opportunity. Yak is more of a power/speed player than one with high-end hockey sense, and he’s not known for his defensive acumen, but until you see players together, it’s hard to know how their skills will mix.

 
 
 
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Who will be on Connor McDavid’s line this year? It’s a question that has gripped Edmonton hockey circles for months now.
 

Who will be on Connor McDavid’s line this year? It’s a question that has gripped Edmonton hockey circles for months now.

Photograph by: Darren Calabrese, Edmonton Journal

 
Who will be on Connor McDavid’s line this year? It’s a question that has gripped Edmonton hockey circles for months now.
Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers made up for his relative lack of size with an elusive skating style and an uncanny ability to figure out where the puck was going to be.
Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson
Image (1) Mike Krushelnyski.png for post 66038
tikkanen
 
 
 
 
 
 
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