EDMONTON, AB - Todd McLellan has no doubts Taylor Hall and Leon Draisaitl will be paired again, confident the once dynamic duo will have success. The Oilers head coach, however, can’t say when that reunion will happen. In the meantime, Hall has been reunited with another familiar face: Zack Kassian.
Hall finished Thursday night’s 5-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on a line with Kassian and Mark Letestu. That trio’s finish to the game was strong enough to convince McLellan to keep them together during Friday's practice.
While Draisaitl, Hall and Purcell were once lightning in a bottle for the blue and orange, their offensive output has fizzled of late. Hall and Draisaitl have been held without points in four straight. Purcell has one lone assist in that span.
“Everybody has ebbs and flows,” said McLellan, who admits it’s hard to maintain high-level production for a full 82 games. “Often, when one guy goes he pulls another linemate a little bit with him, either up or down. The combination of the two, they just have to get going again.”
So McLellan has broken up that line, for now, moving Hall with his former junior teammate Kassian and putting Iiro Pakarinen on Draisaitl and Purcell’s left side.
“I haven’t played with a right-handed centreman since Sam Gagner, so it’s been a long time,” Hall said of the switch-up. “We played together in the third period (against the Leafs) and I thought we had a really good period. Certainly, it’s a lot different line than playing with Teddy and Leon. It’s more of get the puck to the red line, get the puck to the blue line and go from there. Sometimes that works when you’re struggling a bit like I am. Just keeping it simple and focusing on the process of production instead of worrying about points and that kind of thing.”
Hall also believes playing with Letestu will help strengthen the winger’s defensive game, which McLellan says is a testament to Hall’s intelligence.
“I think that’s a good reflection on Hallsy. He’s a pretty smart individual and a smart hockey player,” said McLellan. “The one thing (Letestu) does is he takes a lot of pride on the defensive side of the puck and being positionally sound. He talks a lot about it on the bench. I think he’ll help Taylor that way, and in turn maybe Taylor can help him offensively.”
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In addition to a centre flip, Hall gets a blast from the past when he peers over to the man on the right side. Hall played with Kassian on a very successful, Memorial Cup championship team in Windsor. The two have even been linemates before, albeit another time and another place.
“It’s funny. He’s a character,” said Hall. “He’s been an awesome teammate so far for our team and for the guys in this room. I’m excited for him. We played together in Windsor for a few games. A guy like myself, I want to be receiving the puck. If he can do some grunt work, get some pucks to the net and play a big-bodied game, I think it’s going to help me out and help our line out.”
No stranger to playing with skilled players, Kassian understands his tweaked role with Hall on the opposite wing. Kassian played with the Sedin twins while with Vancouver, an experience he’ll surely draw upon as long as the current line situation stays put.
“Skilled players want to have the puck on their stick, they want to make plays,” said Kassian. “For being a bigger guy, I need to get in on the forecheck, I need to get those pucks in the corners and I need to get them the puck and when the puck is in his hands we have a better opportunity to score.”
It’s been several years since these two have skated together on the same line. Kassian has seen much growth in Hall since the Windsor days, which culminated in Hall being selected first overall in 2010.
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“He’s more of a complete player, I find,” said Kassian. “He’s been in the league a long time, he’s matured a lot, he’s one of the leaders in this room. To play with him, he really understands the game. It’s grown too, his knowledge of the game has grown over the years and you can just tell by the way he plays the game. For me, it doesn’t really change my job playing with anyone. I just have to do my job and get to the net, obviously. He might give me a tap-in here or there, but other than that I just need to play hard, get him open ice and he’ll make things happen.”
At practice the Oilers rolled out the new-look lines that McLellan stresses are of the temporary nature. How long will they last? McLellan doesn’t know. He does, however, know that he’ll reunite a certain group of players once they determine the timeline themselves.
“I know that Taylor and Leon are going to play together and they’re going to be very successful,” said the head coach. “When they go back together, they will probably dictate that.”
Until then, it looks like Hall will get reacquainted with a former teammate when the Oilers next take the ice against the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday.