Five Key Questions for the Edmonton Oilers as the playoffs approach

Edmonton Oilers Goal Celebration
Photo credit:© Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
21 days ago
The 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs are exactly one week away.
The Edmonton Oilers currently sit second in the Pacific Division, holding a record of 48-24-6. They are just three points behind the Vancouver Canucks for first in the Pacific, with a game in hand. Edmonton will play Vancouver tonight in a critical game that may ultimately decide the winner of the division.
Without further ado, here are five major questions for the Edmonton Oilers, with the playoffs looming a week away.
*All stats via Natural Stat Trick, EvolvingHockey, and PuckIQ unless stated otherwise

Will the Oilers receive consistent goaltending?

Consistent net-minding will be crucial for Edmonton to win the cup.
In Stuart Skinner’s playoff debut last spring, he boasted a 0.880 save percentage, allowing nearly seven full goals more than expected in twelve games and being pulled four times. These results are far from pretty.
Of course, it must be noted that in the second round, the Golden Knights created numerous dangerous rush opportunities, and public goaltending models often underrate rush shots (due to the absence of publicly available pre-shot movement data). Furthermore, Skinner was not the only goaltender to struggle against Vegas; prominent net-minders such as Connor Hellebuyck, Jake Oettinger, and Sergei Bobrovsky all produced inadequate save percentages of 0.886, 0.877, and 0.844 respectively against the Golden Knights.
Simply put, with their combination of elite finishing and excellent rush offence, Vegas decimated every goaltender they faced. Skinner was not alone in that regard, and it would be unfair to single out his struggles against the Golden Knights without mentioning the poor performances of the other net-minders Vegas played.
Nonetheless, there is no doubt Skinner’s performance still left a lot to be desired, as he had his struggles in Edmonton’s first-round series against Los Angeles as well. The hope is that Skinner significantly improves in his second playoff appearance, as the Oilers will need him to.
On the bright side, Skinner’s performance has been phenomenal since the beginning of December.

Alongside the rest of the team, Skinner had a brutal start to the season, but he has performed at the level of a bonafide NHL starter throughout the past four months, ranking 2nd among all goaltenders in goals saved above expected. If Skinner can sustain this performance, beating this Edmonton team will be incredibly difficult.

Can Edmonton’s top wingers contribute at 5-on-5 this time around?

Defence and goaltending were undoubtedly an issue for Edmonton in the playoffs, but the lack of 5v5 goal-scoring from their top wingers was just as impactful.
In the 2022 Playoffs, the Oilers averaged 3.66 5v5 goals per hour, higher than the eventual cup-winning Colorado Avalanche and higher than every NHL team in a single playoff appearance throughout the past twenty years. This phenomenal offence was largely driven by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who produced at or above two points per game. Still, the production from their wingers was exceedingly impactful.
At 5-on-5, Evander Kane scored 10 goals, Zach Hyman scored 7, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored 5, combining for 22 goals in a total of 16 games. Throughout the McDavid and Draisaitl era thus far, the most lethal offensive production recorded from their top-six came in the 2022 playoffs.
Unfortunately, their wingers did not come close to repeating this level of performance the subsequent year.
In the 2023 playoffs, Kane, RNH and Hyman combined for a total of just three goals at 5v5 – one each. In the Vegas series, they combined for just one 5v5 goal. Of course, Kane’s 2022 playoff production was never repeatable, as he boasted an incredibly unsustainable 22 percent shooting percentage, but it goes without saying that scoring just one 5v5 goal is simply unacceptable for him, as well as for RNH and Hyman.
Now, there were reports that Kane and Hyman played through injuries in those playoffs, which is undoubtedly worth mentioning. This season, Hyman ranks second in the NHL in 5-on-5 goals per hour, only behind Auston Matthews (and only three total 5v5 goals behind him). As we head into the 2024 playoffs, it’s pretty reasonable to say that (at least) Hyman will produce far more based on his performance from the 2022 playoffs and the phenomenal season he is having this year.
However, Kane and RNH’s goal scoring has dried up recently. Kane has just two goals in total throughout his past 24 games (both coming in the same game against Colorado last Friday), and Nugent-Hopkins has just one goal at 5v5 in that span. I’m much more forgiving of RNH, as his defensive game and underlying metrics remain strong, but both must be much better this time around. 
The Oilers are the best team in the league at producing quality scoring chances at 5-on-5, but their ability to capitalize on those chances can often be inconsistent. Strong finishing from their three $5M wingers will be critical for this team’s potential success in the playoffs.

How will Edmonton’s special teams fare?

In the 2022-23 regular season, Edmonton’s power play set historical records. The Oilers held a PP% of 32 percent in the regular season, scoring 13.3 goals per hour, the highest rate in NHL history. In the playoffs, they somehow managed to improve upon that by producing a PP% of 46 percent—they nearly scored on every other power-play opportunity they received.
This season, Edmonton’s power play still ranks fourth in the league in PP% (26.7 percent) and second in total goals scored per 60 minutes (10.8), but it is not as dominant as it was. Since the beginning of March, they have held a 24 percent PP%, 12th in the league. It is not bad by any stretch, but as of late, it has not been the lethal weapon as it was the prior season.
As for Edmonton’s penalty-kill, they rank 17th overall in PK%, but it has been quite inconsistent. 
In their first 13 games under Woodcroft, the PK% ranked 30th in the league. Following Kris Knoblauch’s hiring, they improved all the way to first in the league from November 12th until the All-Star break. However, they then proceeded to rank 31st in February. Finally, they have been ranked 15th since the beginning of March.
It would be an understatement to say that penalty-kill has fluctuated throughout the year. As seen by the fact that it has also varied under Knoblauch, this is not entirely a systematic or coaching issue, and several of Edmonton’s personnel must improve, most notably Darnell Nurse. 77 defencemen have played 150 minutes on the penalty-kill this season, and Nurse ranks 70th in on-ice shorthanded goals allowed per hour; he must be better.
Despite Edmonton’s relatively less dominant power-play and an inconsistent penalty-kill, they still rank first in the league since November 24, which is a very encouraging sign that proves that they are a better 5-on-5 team than given credit for.
But, if Edmonton’s penalty-kill can at least and consistently remain around league-average, and if their power-play remains close to their level in 2022-23, the team’s Stanley Cup odds drastically increase.

Can the Oilers maintain leads?

May 12, 2023; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Vegas Golden Knights right wing Mark Stone (61) celebrates after scoring a goal against Edmonton Oilers goaltender Stuart Skinner (74) during the second period of game five of the second round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Scoring the first goal of the game was not an issue for the Oilers in the 2023 playoffs – but maintaining those leads certainly was. The Oilers scored the first goal in five of their six games against Vegas and held the lead at some point in all six but ultimately won just two of them.
The Oilers were ahead early in their Game 1 loss thanks to a Leon Draisaitl power-play goal. However, Vegas tied the game several minutes later following a costly turnover by Vincent Desharnais. Vegas scored two more consecutive goals, and although Draisaitl wound up scoring four goals in total, Vegas ultimately emerged victorious by a score of 6-4.
In Game 3, Warren Foegele scored an early goal off the rush within the first three minutes. But Vegas would score five consecutive goals and win 5-1.
In Game 5, the Oilers were ahead early yet again, with Connor McDavid scoring a power-play goal roughly three minutes in. But Jack Eichel would respond just 50 seconds later. Zach Hyman would score another power-play goal later in the first period, but following costly penalties by Philip Broberg and Mattias Janmark in the second period, Vegas obtained a 5-on-3 and scored three goals in just 97 seconds. Edmonton never recovered, ultimately losing 4-3.
Finally, in Game 6, although Vegas scored first for the first time in the series, the Oilers were ahead 2 to 1 at the end of the first period. But once again, the Oilers would give up the lead thanks to a natural hat-trick by Jonathan Marchessault in the second period. Adin Hill and the Golden Knights shut down Edmonton the rest of the way and won the series.
Overall, the Oilers ranked 13th out of 16 teams in 5-on-5 and total goal differential when leading in a game in the 2023 playoffs. In the series against Vegas, they constantly gave up their leads, often due to careless penalties or due to preventable and costly errors. At the same time, Vegas would shut them down offensively when they were ahead.
This season, the Oilers rank second in the league in 5-on-5 goal differential when leading under Kris Knoblauch and first in all-strengths goal differential. Can the Oilers maintain their leads in the 2024 playoffs? Only time will tell.

How will Kris Knoblauch decide to line-match?

Goaltending, defence, a lack of 5v5 scoring from their top wingers, and an inability to maintain leads were all factors that cost Edmonton last spring, but perhaps the most preventable issue that arguably played an even larger role than the aforementioned factors above was line-matching.
In the series against Vegas, Edmonton was out-scored 19 to 22 in total. Edmonton out-scored them 10 to 4 on the special teams, but they were out-scored 9 to 15 at 5v5, ultimately leading to their defeat. Jack Eichel’s line was the driving force behind Vegas’ 5-on-5 play in this series.
Now, Edmonton actually managed to out-score Vegas without Jack Eichel’s line on the ice, ahead 8 to 7 in total 5v5 goals. But against Eichel’s line, they scored just one 5v5 goal while allowing 8 against, equating to a -7 goal differential in just 6 games.
Jay Woodcroft’s line-matching decisions against Eichel in this series were incredibly confusing. For some reason, Nick Bjugstad played more against Eichel’s line than Connor McDavid. As for the defence, the Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci pairing was primarily paired against that line, but they were crushed in those minutes, as they were on-ice for over half of the Eichel’s line’s total goals and held a brutal 29 percent scoring chance differential.
So, what may Kris Knoblauch try in his first playoff appearance behind the bench in Edmonton?
Firstly, I’d strongly encourage the coaching staff to try Ryan McLeod as a defensive center. McLeod has been on the ice for just 1.6 goals against per hour at 5v5 this season, the lowest (i.e. best) rate among all regular Oilers forwards. In the past two seasons, Ryan McLeod has played 409 minutes against elite opposition, holding a 55 percent dangerous shot attempt differential, while the Oilers have outscored elite opponents 19 to 14. Say what you want about McLeod’s offence, but he is very good defensively.
At the very least, it could be worth giving him a shot as a shutdown defensive centre, opening up more room for McDavid and Draisaitl to produce against the opposition’s lesser lines. Either that or Knoblauch could simply go with “best-on-best” and match the opposition’s top lines with McDavid’s line.
As for the defencemen, Knoblauch and Coffey’s deployment has been quite interesting since the beginning of March. Here is a look at the percentage of TOI played against elite competition amongst Edmonton’s defensive corps ever since March 3:
I specifically chose March 3 because, on that date, Edmonton moved Vincent Desharnais to the top four alongside Darnell Nurse, while Cody Ceci was paired with Brett Kulak on the third pair. Eventually, Ceci and Desharnais would swap spots again, but since March 3, the coaching staff has deployed Desharnais and Kulak more frequently against elite opposition than Nurse and Ceci.
For example, Kulak and Desharnais played more against Eichel’s line at 5-on-5 in Edmonton’s 5-1 victory on Wednesday than Nurse and Ceci. Last Friday against Colorado, Kulak and Desharnais were also deployed more frequently against Nathan MacKinnon. In games against St. Louis and Dallas last week, Kulak-Desharnais also played more against Jason Robertson and Robert Thomas’ lines, the top lines on their respective teams.
This change in Edmonton’s deployment of their defencemen the month right before the playoffs is quite fascinating. It’s potentially a sign that Knoblauch and Coffey do recognize Nurse – Ceci’s struggles against elite competition, and have thus limited their quality of competition. Strictly in terms of deployment against top lines, one can argue that Kulak and Desharnais have been Edmonton’s technical second pairing over the past few weeks.
Now, I am concerned about Desharnais’ foot speed, which can be exposed by faster, skilled players, while Kulak has not regularly played a top-four role in the playoffs throughout his career. But, perhaps they could at least be an upgrade over Nurse and Ceci’s performance against top lines in the last playoffs. Only time will tell.
Ultimately, these playoffs will be a massive test for Kris Knoblauch and for the roster Ken Holland has built in what is likely his final season as Edmonton’s general manager. Let’s wait and see how far they go.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

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