For a team to go on a strong playoff run, they need a handful of things to go right. You obviously need strong goaltending, red-hot special teams will help, and a good amount of luck as well. Most teams that also go on deep playoff runs also find their ‘sleeper’. The player who no one expected to score big goals or play huge minutes, but came out of nowhere to do exactly that.
When the Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018, they got huge contributions from Lars Eller. When Nashville went to the Finals in 2017, they had a guy like Colton Sissons produce better than he had at any point in his career. When the Oilers made the playoffs in 2017, Zack Kassian emerged as a player who could supply the team with energy and the odd goal and of course, everyone remembers what Fernando Pisani did back in 2006.
Who could that player be for the Oilers this season? There are a handful of interesting candidates:
I view Athanasiou as a ‘boom or bust’ type of player heading into the postseason. There’s no denying he has the skill and speed to be a top-six player, but his game is far from well rounded. I’m not sure if he’ll start on Connor McDavid’s wing or not, but if he does, it’s reasonable to think that Athanasiou could be an important piece for this team.
He spent 44 minutes with Connor McDavid after the Oilers acquired him from the Red Wings and had some decent numbers. At even strength, they had a 51% Corsi For, 57% of the scoring chances and outscored the opposition 2-1.
With their speed alone, Athanasiou and McDavid could form a deadly duo but I also think he would work well on a line with Leon Draisaitl, which is exactly who Dave Tippett has him with to start summer camp. Draisatl knows how to keep up with the speed of McDavid so I have no doubt that he could bring the best out of the speedy Athanasiou.
Either way, if Athanasiou is in the top six for the playoffs, he could be an impact player for this team.
Unlike Athanasiou and Ennis, who I’ll get to in a second, Archibald’s spot in the lineup seems pretty solidified. Barring any injuries or COVID related absences, he’ll likely be on the third line with Riley Sheahan and start most of his shifts in the defensive zone. At the same time, I think Tippett really trusts that duo and the third member of their line will likely be a player with some solid offensive ability, that could help make the Oilers third line productive in the playoffs.
From January on, Archibald played in 29 games and scored nine goals. If he could keep that level of production up while also maintaining his strong penalty killing and ferocious forechecking, he’ll make his $1.5 million extension look like a really good deal.
Neal started off the season on fire. In the first 41 games of the year, he potted 19 goals and then his production sort of fell off a cliff. We now know that part of the problem may have been his health as he was playing through a broken toe. After a long layoff, he should be fully healthy like he was early in the season.
While he might not get a lot of ice time at even strength, he’ll likely see a lot of time on the powerplay. The fact that he’s a net-front presence on the deadliest powerplay in the league bodes well for him as well. If the Oilers powerplay scores big goals, which should be expected, then Neal could very well be the one scoring them. I would not be the least bit surprised if the veteran forward has a strong postseason.
If I had to pick just one of these four options, I might actually pick Ennis. Tippett currently has him playing on the third line with Sheahan and Archibald but I could see him finding his way into the top six. If he’s in the top six, then he’ll get plenty of chances to score big goals throughout the playoffs.
He’s a savvy veteran player who has experience playing up and down the lineup. He spent 68 even-strength minutes with McDavid and while they did score five goals on the ice together at even strength, they also allowed five goals against. He also played 36 ES minutes with Leon Draisaitl throughout his brief regular-season stint with the team. With Draisaitl and Ennis on the ice, the Oilers were outscored but they did have solid possession numbers.
He has a nose for the net and in his brief time with the Oilers elite centres, he showed that he knows how to play with skill. I look at the things Kailer Yamamoto did to become an effective complementary piece to Draisaitl and I think Ennis could do that for McDavid. He makes quick, smart plays with the puck and he’s good at forcing turnovers off the forecheck.
There are reasons to like Ennis with either of Draisaitl or McDavid and if he gets a chance, I think the local product could really shine in the playoffs.