I took a close look at the Blackhawks in my last article, and now it’s time for a closer look at our Edmonton Oilers heading into the play-in series:
Nuge – McDavid – Kassian
Athanasiou – Draisaitl – Yamamoto
Ennis – Sheahan – Archibald
Neal – Khaira – Chiasson
Nygard – Haas – P. Russell
Benson – Marody – McLeod
Klefbom – Larsson
Nurse – Bear
Russell – Benning
Jones – Bouchard
Lagesson – Broberg
The up and coming Oilers are led by two of the game’s most prolific offensive players in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who have combined to win 3 of the last 4 Art Ross Trophies.
The supporting cast in Edmonton is starting to get stronger. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was having a career year leading up to the pause largely because of the success of a line featuring himself, Draisaitl, and Kailer Yamamoto, the little guy putting up the big numbers to start his NHL career. Zack Kassian was also having a career year before the pause because he got a lot of time with McDavid and Draisaitl… and, you know, on his own merits too. Ethan Bear surprised a lot of people during training camp, and he played a big role in the Oilers success this season.
The Oilers roster is chalked full of guys that are entering their true prime years or that are finding their way in the NHL quickly. McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Klefbom, Nurse, Larsson, Bear, Yamamoto… There’s a decent core there that is on the cusp of doing some damage. They just need the support to get the job done.
That support has been hard to come by in Edmonton. James Neal had a hot start to the season, but he became largely ineffective later in the year. Newcomers Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Ennis haven’t had much of a chance to show their worth with the Oilers, so the jury is still out on those two. Athanasiou has disappointed thus far, and Ennis has been moderately effective. Riley Sheahan and Josh Archibald play a shut down role, but they are not expected to put up much in the way of offence. I don’t see a drop of offence coming from anyone else among the Oilers forwards except maybe Chiasson on the powerplay. If the Oilers are going to win this series, then McDavid and Draisaitl will have to lead the charge and hope that they get some support scoring at even strength along the way.
The big advantage the Oilers have over the Blackhawks is special teams. The Oilers had the top ranked PP unit in the NHL going into the pause at 29.5%, compared to the Blackhawks in 28th place in that metric. Edmonton’s PK was 2nd in the NHL (84.4%), while Chicago’s was 9th (82.1%). The Oilers were better on both fronts, but their powerplay was unbelievable this season. That’s not hard to believe considering that the PP unit features the league’s top two point producers.
Consider this though. The Oilers scored 225 total goals in 71 games this season. The Blackhawks only scored 208. However, Chicago actually scored 11 more goals at even strength than the Oilers did, and they did it in one less game. The Oilers will need their strong special teams play to continue if they are going to beat the Blackhawks.
Edmonton is a much faster team than they were in 2018-19, but they are not as fast as the Blackhawks. Edmonton will need to rely on guys like Kassian, Nurse, Larsson, Khaira, Neal, and Chiasson to wear Chicago down physically if they want to succeed at even strength.
Goaltending is always a big key in the playoffs. If Corey Crawford is healthy and in top form, then the Blackhawks have a clear advantage. However, there is a possibility that that won’t be the case for Crawford. If Malcolm Subban ends up being the starter in Chicago, then the advantage in net goes to the Oilers.
Mike Smith is old, but he stepped up for the Flames during their first round loss to Colorado last year. He was their best player in that series by far. However, I’m a little nervous because of the big pause we have just had and Smith’s penchant for starting seasons slow recently. His puck handling ability will be a big asset against the forecheck of the Blackhawks, which is why I think he will ultimately get the start in game 1.
Meanwhile, Mikko Koskinen is still largely unproven. He has shown glimpses of brilliance, but also moments of futility. I’ll say that he was definitely more consistent in the 2019-20 regular season than he was in his first season with the Oilers, so I’m hopeful that he will come through if called upon this summer.
The Oilers are the higher seed in this matchup, but this is essentially a brand new season because of the pause. Anything can happen. The Oilers can’t come in expecting to beat up on a team that was all but out of the running for a playoff spot in early March, or else they will watch the Stanley Cup playoffs unfold on their home ice from the comfort of their homes. The games will be played in Edmonton, but there is no home ice advantage without fans in the building.