Edmonton Oilers: How will they do in their play-in series with Chicago?

The Edmonton Oilers will have their hands full against the Chicago Blackhawks

Luckily, the Edmonton Oilers are in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Now that the dust seems to have more or less settled on how the NHL will proceed, we can look forward to seeing what will happen with the rest of the NHL season.

As I’m sure you’ve all heard by now, the playoff series will be determined by points %.  By virtue of the Edmonton Oilers just finishing outside the top 4 in points % – they finished 5th – they’ll have to play a play-in series against Chicago.  Had they finished in the top 4, they’d have an automatic birth in the playoffs, now they’ll have to play a short best of 5 series against Chicago and the winner advances to the playoffs.

How will they do?  Honestly, they match up pretty well.  I’d go so far as to say they’re the favourites in this series.  That doesn’t mean they’ll win it, of course, but it does mean they’ve got a much better chance at proceeding to the playoffs than the Hawks do.

And the rest of the NHL is probably rooting for that as well because let’s be honest, who would you rather see play in the playoffs?  Kane/Toews or Mcdavid/Draisaitl?  Yeah, it’d be the latter.

That being said, they shouldn’t go into this series thinking it’s going to be as cakewalk just because they’re the better team.  Chicago is a team on the cusp of their window to win closing, while the Oilers are a team whose window to win has just opened – but that doesn’t mean you can take them lightly as they can still burn you if you give them a chance to.  Let’s get more specific and see what why the Oilers are the superior team by looking at all facets of it:

Top 6 Forward

It’s tough to beat the duo that the Oilers are built on – the McDrai duo IMO is the best in the league.  No offense to Crosby/Malkin, Mckinnon/Landeskog, Ovechkin/Backstrom, or Pastrnak/Marchand, but I don’t see how Mcdavid/Draisaitl beats them all as a duo.

The rest of the Oilers top 6 is balanced and capable of making noise as well.

Nuge and rookie Yamamoto combine with Dr. Drai to form a solid 2nd line.  Zack Kassian is a physical player who we’ve discovered in his time as an Oiler still has gas and top 6 scoring chops left in his tank, and is a long way from losing his physical edge which opens up the ice for Mcdavid.

The only weak spot in the top 6 is 1st line LW, which has seen a variety of players tried out in that spot although none have permanently grabbed it yet.

The main candidates for said spot, as far as I’m concerned (and this is my blog so I can write what I want) have to be newcomers Tyler Ennis and Andreas Athanasiou from the trade deadline.  Both players seemed to show chemistry with Mcdavid and both players have the speed to burn in playing with him.  James Neal could go there too, but considering the guy hasn’t been able to score in the 2020 calendar year I tend to believe he’s not the best choice there.

So, that means, even if you key in on the McDrai duo, there’s still plenty of guys who are capable of burning you for a goal.  Hey, this isn’t 2015 anymore, the new age is here.

Chicago, meanwhile, counters with Patrick Kane – a player who’s on the wrong side of 30 but still capable of putting up elite numbers.  He had 33 goals and 84 points, which while still very good is down from last year’s 44 goals and 110 points.  His famous partner in crime – Jonathan Toews – had a down year this year, only scoring 18 goals and 60 points in 70 games.  He may have been playing injured but that’s definitely a down year for him – he had 35 goals and 81 points just last year.

Those are their 2 main offensive weapons.  Outside of those 2, there aren’t really a lot of sexy names to choose from.  Young Alex Debrincat saw his goal-scoring cut more than half from 41 last year to 18 this year and 45 points from 76 last year.  He’s only 22, though, so that’s bound to happen, but doesn’t bode well for him in the series as those are both career lows for him.  Oh, and he was -10 too, also a career-low for him.  There’s also 23-year-old Dylan Strome, whose numbers are also down from last – 12 goals and 38 points from 17 goals and 51 points last year.  Did I mention neither of those guys has playoff push experience?

Other than that you’ve got so-so Brandon Saad, who put up 21 goals this year but a rather anemic 33 points – the 2nd lowest total of his career.  Is he more of a sniper than a playmaker now?  I’d believe that, considering the lack of consistent scoring amongst the Hawks roster.

Rounding out the top 6 is greenhorn Alex Nylander.  He’s played his first (more or less) full-time regular season this year and has been unimpressive, putting up 10-16-26 in 65 games.  You do NOT want top 6 regulars only putting up 10 goals a year.  He’s less than 100 games into his NHL career, so hopefully he gets better with time, but he’s a little green right now.

They’ve also got raw rookie Dominik Kubalik, who put up 30 goals and 16 assists for 46 points – fantastic totals for a rookie – and probably for development reasons was playing on the 3rd line for the Hawks at the time of the pause on the season.  He may or may not play a more featured role in the play-in series.  They may think he’s ready and go for broke in the series, letting the chips fall where they may.

Bottom line – Chicago’s top 6 strikes me as a mix of inexperienced, injured, underwhelming, and Patrick Kane.  IMO that’s not a recipe for success.  The Oilers top 6 is far more polished – 5 out of 6 players playoff battle-tested while in Chicago 3 out of 6 have no playoff experience at all.  The Oilers more balanced attack gives them the edge here.

Winner – Oilers, by a lot

Bottom 6 forwards

It’s hard to judge bottom 6 forwards, but let’s do it anyway.  Depth players can often make the difference for a team.

In Chicago, if you take Kubalik out of the picture, then you have Kirby Dach – 8 goals and 23 points, which is good for a bottom 6 guy.  Then there’s Brandon Hagel, a raw rookie who only played 1 game prior to pausing the season – no offense.  Matthew Highmore – 2-4-6 in 36 games – just below what you’d want for a 4th liner.  David Kampf – 8-8-16 in 70 games, solid for a 4th liner.  Ryan Carpenter – 3-12-15 in 69 games, also solid numbers for a 4th liner.

2 players the Hawks will sorely miss in their bottom 6 – who may or may not be back for the series – are Zack Smith and Andrew Shaw, both of whom put up another 8 goals and 22 points between them. There’s also ex-Oiler Drake Caggiula, but he’s had 2 concussions this year, so he was injured pretty bad at the time of season pause.  If I were the Hawks I wouldn’t play him unless he was 100% ready to go, because you don’t want to mess with concussions.

The Oilers as a whole are quite healthy this year so they won’t have the same issues in their bottom 6. Joakim Nygard is the only issue for them healthwise in the bottom 6 and they don’t even necessarily need him.  They’ve got a bottom 6 that will see competition for spots and ice time.

1 key player in the Oilers bottom 6 is James Neal.  With 19 goals – mostly on the PP – he’s scored more goals on his own than almost the entire Hawks bottom 6 combined.  He finished the year at -20, though, which is a concern.  If you keep Smith and Shaw out of the Hawks lineup, that’s only 21 goals in their entire bottom 6, while Neal himself has 19.

As the refs tend to put the whistles away in the postseason – yes this is a play-in series but it may be treated like a playoff series – I tend to think there’s a good chance he’s less of a factor at this point.  Assuming he doesn’t play in the top 6 Andreas Athanasiou could wind up here.  he only played 9 games before the pause but put up 2 points in those 9 games.  Riley Sheahan put up 8-7-15 in 66 games this year.  If the season hadn’t paused I tend to think he’d have gotten that last point he needed to be a solid bottom 6 guy.

His experience and 49% in the faceoff circle will be key (he’s over 50% at evens and on the PP, he’s only weak on the PK faceoffs and that’s what kept his overall % below 50%) in the bottom 6.  Josh Archibald had a solid season for us too – 12 goals and 21 points in 62 games.  Jujhar Khaira didn’t have a good season this year, but he will be a key physical player at the very least in the series.  He put up 6-4-10 in 64 games this year – which is fine for a 4th liner – and finished with a career-worst -19, which is a concern especially considering his offense has been going down for the past 2 seasons as well.

Tough to say whether or not Tippett will play him.  Then there’s rookie Gaetan Haas, who’s put up 5-5-10 in 58 games, solid numbers for a raw rookie from Europe – especially considering he was only -1 on the year, usually own zone play is what the European imports struggle with the most.  Rounding out the bottom 6 is fall from grace winger Alex Chiasson, who put up 11-13-24 in 65 games.

Then there’s coke machine hitter Patrick Russell, who produces barely any offence but can hit.  I have my doubts about him playing.  The longshots are farmhands Josh Currie, Tyler Benson, and Cooper Marody.  I have a feeling between those 3 and Haas, Tippett has plenty of options if he wants to make changes during the series.

Bottom line – The Oilers bottom 6 is more experienced, healthier, and even barely doing any math I can tell will outscore the Hawks bottom 6.  This isn’t even a contest.

Winner – Oilers, by a lot

Defense

Like their forward corps, the Hawks at the time of season pause were running on a rather depleted lineup as they had 3 regular d-men out of the lineup, and even with those 3 in the lineup the corps looks rather lethargic at best.

Headlining the corps is 36-year-old Duncan Keith, a player who at one time was one of the NHL’s best d-men, but not anymore.  He mustered only 27 points this year, tying a low of the same numbers from 7 seasons ago.

That’s still decent numbers but a huge dip for him.  At least he can still play without the puck, I guess (+1 on the season).  My money is being overly reliant on him in the series and it’s revealed by the end he’s either injured or was playing injured – and he’s signed for 3 more seasons after this one – and with a NMC to boot.  Good luck with that, Stan Bowman.

After that we have the much younger Connor Murphy, who at 27 has put up a career-high – yes, a career-high – of 19 points.  At least his contract isn’t nearly as bad.

Rounding out the Hawks top 4 is the rather forgettable Slater Koekkoek – who put up a career-high of 10 points this year in 42 games – and callup Lucas Carlsson, who has put up 1 assist in 6 games prior to the season pause.

That’s the top 4.

Bottom 6 is composed of solid veteran Olli Maatta, who has put up 17 points this year and honestly looks like an offensive dynamo compared to the rest of the squad, with an even to boot.  Then there’s another callup – Nicholas Beaudin – who put up goose eggs in 1 game prior to the pause.

2 key injuries for the Hawks – Calvin De Haan and Brent Seabrook.  Even with these 2 in the lineup, I don’t see much of a reason to move the needle for the Hawks – Seabrook hasn’t been an elite puck-mover for about 3 seasons.  He used to be a killer partner for Duncan Keith, but both players are too old to make a difference now.  Seabrook finished with 3-1-4 in 34 games prior to injury.  De Haan has never been much of a puck mover, and his +10 will no doubt help his team if he’s able to come back from his injury, but even before injury his 1-5-6 in 29 games is a career-low all around except for his first season when he only played 1 game.

The Oilers?  Well, they counter with some depth and their top guys healthy and playing some of the best hockey of their careers.  Oscar Klefbom put up 34 points, only 4 away from his career-high.  His -17 is a bit of a concern, but we can probably overlook that considering that his partner – Adam Larsson – is a stay at home type who mops up after him.

He was playing injured for most of the season, but started to hit his stride a few games before the pause and remarkably even with injury has improved his +/- by 28 points to even.  Then you have 2nd top dog Darnell Nurse, who put up 33 points for us this year.  Although that’s a dip from the 41 he put up last year, it’s still pretty good.  Ethan Bear rounds out the top 4 with his first full-time NHL season, putting up 21 points with a -4 to boot.  For a rookie looking to master the toughest position in the NHL to play, those are fantastic numbers.

As Ken Holland has publicly said he likes to stock 8 d-man for a playoff run, we’ll go through the 3rd pairing and then tell you about the other 2.  Veteran Kris Russell, in the past the NHL shot-blocking king for 2 seasons straight, was injured for part of the season, but even then with the emergence, the past 2 seasons of guys on both the left and right sides Russell has been the odd man out.  Even so, he’s the only d-man on the team who plays less than 20 minutes a night and yet still cranks out over 100 blocked shots on the season – 4th on the team, in case you didn’t glean that from the context.

He put up 9 assists of offense this season and finished even, more or less what you’d expect from a bottom pairing guy.  Rounding out the regulars is Matt Benning, a player whose offense has tumbled the last couple of seasons but finished 2nd on the team with a +8 on the season.  He put up 1-7-8 this season in terms of boxcars.  Pedestrian numbers but not the end of the world for a bottom pairing d-man.

Rounding out the depth on the team is Caleb Jones, a player who is still not yet a full-time NHLer but took a huge step forward and filled in for Kris Russell quite nicely.  He gave us 4-5-9 and a -1 in 43 games this year.  Don’t be surprised if after the season is done Kris Russell is traded and Jones becomes a regular.  Newcomer Mike Green only played 2 games before getting injured.  He didn’t put up offense, but you know, small sample size and whatnot.  Callups from the farm team for the duration are expected to be Evan Bouchard and William Laggeson.

Bottom line – The Oilers d corps are healthier, better, and a better mix of ages than the Hawks have.  The Hawks only have 1 top 4 guy who put up 20 points this year, the Oilers can counter that with 3 out of 4 in the top 4.   The Oilers top 3 D puck movers can already outscore the entire healthy Hawks corps.  This one is no contest.

Winner – Oilers, by a wide margin

Goaltending

Let’s be honest, neither team has very good goaltending.  But, the Oilers have 2 guys that seem to be able to work well in tandem.  Both guys have been inconsistent at times but it seems like when 1 guy struggles the other guy picks up the slack.  This is the NHL’s new way, 1 and 1A guys instead of starter-backup.

The Hawks used to have the superior tandem but then traded away Robin Lehner to Vegas for Malcolm Subban, so far a career backup. The Hawks have starter Corey Crawford, still the starter at 35 years old which is a little disturbing.  Crawford’s contract is up after this season, and if I had to guess I’d say the Hawks are gambling that Subban can re-sign and start for them next season.  Still, Crawford was only OK this year – he hasn’t been elite for 3 seasons now.

The Oilers, meanwhile, counter with Mikko Koskinen, who is on the wrong side of 30 and probably will be best known for being signed to an extension he had no business getting as the GM who signed him to said extension was fired the next day.  Nonetheless, Koskinen is only concluding his 2nd season as a full-time NHLer and his stats have improved both years.  The fact that he doesn’t have a lot of NHL miles on his body probably means his career may be longer than the average NHL goalie.  It remains to be seen whether Ken Holland sees him as a long term solution or whether he gets traded for a different goalie.

Mike Smith is a guy who IMO should never have been signed here.  I wondered how much gas was left in the tank at 38 years old with this guy.  But he’s been NHL average, slightly better than last year in Calgary, in fact, and has a habit of raising his level of play for the playoffs – and, I would bet, this play-in series too.

Bottom line – The fact that the Oilers have 2 legitimate guys who can step in and man the nets with some sort of reliability means that they get the edge in this one.  If the Hawks hadn’t have let go of Robin Lehner I’d give them the edge in net, but if Crawford goes down Subban will be asked to assume a lot of pressure which can be jarring for a guy who’s never been “the guy” in net.  The Hawks better hope Crawford remains healthy or else they’re in trouble.  The Oilers also get the edge due to having a better D corps – this keeps the puck out of your own end longer which reduces the shots on goal which improves goalie stats.

Winner – Oilers, by a little bit

Special teams

This one should be short, sweet, and self explanatory.  Oilers had the #1 PP in the league this year and the #2 PK, 2nd only to San Jose this season.

Chicago, on the other hand, was 28th on the PP and 9th on the PK.  Who wins this one?

Winner – You do the math and tell me.

Intangibles

This one is tricky.  The Hawks have the edge in experience, having most of the same core they had when they won 3 cups from 2010-2015.  Much of that core, however, has succumbed to age, so this is a bit of a double-edged sword.

The Oilers, on the other hand, are playing for only their 2nd playoff appearance in 14 years.  Sure, 2017 got the monkey off their back, but the playoffs are so close now they can practically taste it.  This is the best shot they’ve had since then, so you can bet they’re going to be the much hungrier team.  Say what you want about lineups (I just did, lol!!!!), but when players are grinding it out in the 3rd period close to the end of a series and both teams need a single goal to tie, it often comes down to who wants the win just a little more than their opponent.  In terms of sheer motivation, I tend to see the Oilers on top of this one.  I don’t think Chicago expected to come close to the playoffs this year, and considering the circumstances under the usual playoff system, they probably wouldn’t have.  Thus, the Oilers have the edge in motivation.

Bottom line – Who wins?  Let’s call it a wash.

Overall bottom line – Considering all of this and the big picture, I tend to think the Oilers will win the play-in series.  Their roster is healthier, it has more depth and better performing players at the top and bottom.  Most importantly, their window to win is just opening now as they’re a team on the rise, while Chicago is a team on the decline whose window to win is quickly slamming shut.  Don’t be surprised if they’re out of the playoff picture next season and start a full-on rebuild.  Chicago might make a game of it, but IMO the Oilers will be the victors at the end.

Bonus material

So, apparently Chicago will upset us because we’re “over-reliant” on special teams – at least according to NHL Network.

I don’t think I buy this.

After all, let’s look closer at the roster:

Connor Mcdavid – 11 of 34 goals, or 32% on the PP, 68% of goals at EV.  43 of 97 points on the PP, or 44% on the PP, 56% of points at EV.

Leon Draisaitl – 16 of 43 goals on the PP, or 37% of goals on the PP, 63% of goals at EV.  44 of 110 points on the PP, or 40% on the PP, 60% of points at EV.

Nuge – 7of 22 goals on the PP, or 32% of goals on the PP, 68% of goals at EV.  24 of 61 points on the PP, or 39% of goals on the PP, 61% of points at EV.

Those are the Oilers’ top 3 scorers this season.  None of them have a majority of goals or points on the PP, they all produce the majority of their offense at even strength.

So where’s the math for this supposition coming from?  If we’re relying on our PP too much why isn’t that reflected in the scorers’ stats?  I don’t know about you, but IMO this article is suspect.

Let’s do the math for a D-man as well, just for kicks.  Oscar Klefbom plays the point on the 1st PP unit so maybe the numbers are more tilted, right? 2 out of 5 PP goals on the PP, 40% of goals on the PP, 60% of goals at EV.  18 of 34 points on the PP, 53% of points on the PP, 47% at EV.

So I was right – the numbers are more tilted, but even then they’re tilted to a majority of points ONLY on the PP and even then just barely – pretty close to an even split, TBH.  Even then, Klefbom still produces the majority of his goals at even strength, not on the PP.

I could post the numbers for all players, but I think you get the pattern.  I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t call that an “over-reliance on special teams.” In fact, the only player who produces the majority of his points on the PP is James Neal, who produces 12 of 19 goals, or 63% of his goals on the PP, which leaves 37% for EV.  Points, 17 of 31 on the PP.  55% of points on the PP, leaving 45% at EV.

What say you?

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