The playoffs are upon us!
For the first time since 2017, the Edmonton Oilers will play some real postseason hockey. Coming off the heels of one of the league’s best seasons ever from Connor McDavid and a renaissance year for Mike Smith, the Oilers are looking to make some noise in the North division. They had the most regulation wins (31) and finished in second place with 72pts, a mere five points behind the division champion Toronto Maple Leafs.
It has been quite a successful year for the club, but it will be all for not if they can’t accomplish anything in the playoffs. They are looking to dispel the doubt caused by last season’s disappointing loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the play-in round and show the league that the Oilers are on the up.
The team that stands in their way is the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets are in the same boat as the Oilers, trying to avenge their play-in loss to the Calgary Flames, but are facing a bit of adversity of late. They have suffered a brutal end to their regular season, losing seven of their last ten, and just barely secured third-place in the division with 63pts.
On paper, this looks like an easy series win for the Oilers. Edmonton dominated the season series with a 7-2-0 record while McDavid and Draisaitl feasted on them for a combined 34pts during that span. The Jets are also dealing with some injuries, as Nikolaj Ehlers is still uncertain to return to the lineup to start.
Yet, there is still plenty of uncertainty around the Oilers. After all, they were the consensus pick to win last year’s play-in before getting eliminated in four games to the Blackhawks. So, in the spirit of seeing what Edmonton’s chances really are, let’s take a deeper look into how these two teams stack up at the forward and defensive positions.
I would be easy to simply write this off as an Oilers advantage and say that McDavid and Draisaitl easily make them the better top-six group, but that isn’t necessarily the case. The Winnipeg Jets also boast a loaded top six with the likes of Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, and Kyle Connor all coming into this series without injuries.
Add Pierre Luc-Dubois and Nikolaj Ehlers to that group and you got a lot of fire-power heading your way. This gives Winnipeg five legitimate top-six forwards when they are healthy.
The Oilers, outside of McDavid and Draisaitl, do have some answers. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been finding his stride recently and Jesse Puljujarvi has been a man on a mission for some time now. The question marks lie in whether Kailer Yamamoto can return to his normal self and if Dominik Kahun will find some consistency on McDavid’s line.
On paper, it would seem like the Winnipeg Jets have the advantage but injuries and some lackluster play from Dubois this season is going to bring them down a notch. McDavid is playing the best he ever has and, for the first time in his career, he has some help on his line. Draisaitl is also continuing to prove that he is a top-five player in this league.
Moving down the roster we have some noticeable differences between these two teams. The bottom-six has been an area of contempt for Edmonton Oiler fans all season long as they have struggled to provide the kind of depth scoring you would expect from a contending team. Their leading scorer in this group would be Alex Chiasson with 16pts and it only falls off from there.
To further this point, a quick look at the GF% of each team’s bottom-six ranks the Oilers 28th, ahead of only Anaheim, Philidelphia, and Chicago. This is an area where Edmonton will need to improve if they want a lengthy playoff run and is arguably their biggest weakness.
The Jets, meanwhile, are a different story. While they lack a generational talent like McDavid or Draisaitl, they make up for it with their depth. They rank 8th on the GF% list I mentioned above and this is due to guys like Andrew Copp and Mason Appleton taking huge steps forward in their development. Trevor Lewis and Nate Thompson have also been serviceable in their roles this season.
In the end, the Winnipeg Jets simply have a deeper forward group than the Edmonton Oilers.
Brace yourselves, Oiler fans, because I am going to say something that you haven’t heard in a long time. The Edmonton Oilers have a pretty solid defensive group heading into the playoffs.
They have seen Darnell Nurse take a huge step in his development and the addition of Tyson Barrie has given them an offensive option they haven’t seen in years. While I think the defensive play of Barrie has been a little more than suspect, he has come as advertised. This has been one of the more impressive top pairings in the league when it comes to offensive production.
Their second pairing is the complete opposite. Thar arrival of Dmitry Kulikov at the trade deadline gave Edmonton a solid defensive defender who played well on a bad New Jersey team. Instead of pairing him with an offensive guy to offset defensive inefficiencies, Dave Tippett opted to pair him with another defensive defenceman in Adam Larsson. They both do their job well and have shown their ability in shutting down top talent, which they will have to against the Jets. I worry that their puck-moving skills will lead to problems leaving the defensive end but that hasn’t been a major problem in the regular season.
This is a solid top four for the Oilers and perhaps the best we have seen from the club since Chris Pronger left town. I do think Ethan Bear would be a better option with Nurse and bumping Barrie down with Kulikov might be the more balanced approach, but Tippett has shown a lot of resistance to change in his top-4.
The Jets, on the other hand, have struggled defensively this year. They have seen a lot of defenders skip town the last few years and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has struggled to replace them. What they have now is, from what I see, only two legitimate top-4 defenders in Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk.
Dylan DeMelo has been playing top-pairing minutes alongside Morrissey this season and while I don’t think he is a bad defender, you are definitely asking a lot of him in this role. Likewise, Derek Forbort is flanking Pionk on the second pairing. This group has struggled to contain McDavid all season long and since Winnipeg made little to no changes to this group, we should expect more of the same in this series.
The Edmonton Oilers definitely hold the advantage in this series when it comes to the forward and defensive positions. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are talented enough to outplay Winnipeg’s top guns and the supporting cast of RNH, Puljujarvi and Yamamoto are legitimate top six players that can provide extra support.
The defensive battle also seems to tilt toward Edmonton more significantly. Guys like Nurse, Kulikov, and Larsson are all proven to be effective in shutting down top talent and have been successful against the Jets all season long.
Winnipeg’s path to victory will lay on whether or not they can use their forward depth to their advantage in this series. They have the ability to roll four effective lines against the Oilers and if they can do this it might be enough to overwhelm them.
All in all, the ball is in Edmonton’s court to perform.