How does the current Oilers team rank in comparison to last season’s playoff lineup?
Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
By NHL_Sid1 month ago
With six games left in the regular season for the Edmonton Oilers, the 2023 NHL playoffs will begin in just a few weeks.
In the 2022 playoffs, the Oilers defeated the LA Kings in the first round and the Calgary Flames in the second round to reach the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2006, and for the first time in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl’s NHL careers. However, they were swept in the WCF by the Colorado Avalanche, who went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Will the Oilers return to the WCF this season? Could they go even further and win the Stanley Cup?
Here’s a look at how the 22-23 Oilers rank in comparison to last season’s Oilers team.
*All stats via Natural Stat Trick and EvolvingHockey unless stated otherwise
Due to the coaching change, last season’s results will be split into “Tippett” and “Woodcroft” sections. Here’s a look at how the team performs with and without McDavid and Draisaitl:
One of the biggest downfalls of Dave Tippett’s era was the putrid bottom six, with a ghastly 38 percent goal differential. In his first season with the Oilers, Woodcroft already improved that to 47 percent, and this season, they’re finally out-scoring the opposition at a solid margin. The overall team saw a massive improvement under the new coaching.
However, during last year’s WCF run, the team was much more reliant on McDavid at 5v5 than most people think. Without McDavid, the Oilers were out-scored 15-26 at 5v5, a goal differential of 37 percent. Compare this to the eventual cup-winning Avalanche, who out-scored the opposition 32-27, a goal differential of 54 percent, without MacKinnon on the ice. Contributions throughout all four lines were a major reason for Colorado’s cup victory, whereas Edmonton didn’t get enough of that.
A significant portion of this was due to Draisaitl’s injury, which hampered his ability to drive his own line. Away from McDavid, Draisaitl was out-scored 1-8 at 5v5, alongside an awful 36% expected goal differential.
There’s a lot more reason for hope heading into this season’s playoffs if the team can remain healthy.
Looking at the visual above, Draisaitl is still being out-scored again without McDavid this season. However, as of recently, he’s playing some of the best two-way hockey of his career. In March away from McDavid, Draisaitl is riding a 56% goal differential and 59% scoring chance differential.
In a recent interview, Draisaitl did imply that one of the reasons for his recent play is that he feels more healthy, so it’s reasonable to assume those prior results are influenced to some degree by injury. From 19-20 – 21-22, in a significant sample of nearly 2200 minutes, Draisaitl is at a 56 percent goal differential away from McDavid, so we know he has this ability to center an effective line.
A 100% healthy Leon Draisaitl running his own line will make this team a whole lot better.
Not to mention, as stated previously, the improved bottom six does give the current Oilers roster an advantage over last year’s team. Again, the team’s performance away from McDavid was one of several reasons why Colorado swept them in the WCF, so improved depth scoring in the bottom six and a healthy Draisaitl gives more reason for optimism.
With that said, one cause for concern is actually McDavid’s line at 5v5 this season. Away from Draisaitl, he’s just barely above net-even, and it’s fair to say the expectations should be higher than that. I don’t think this is primarily due to his individual play, and his expected goal differential is still 57%. I believe the major reason for his lower goal share is his linemates struggling to finish his passes.
At 5v5, McDavid has scored 29 goals on 20 expected goals, whereas his linemates have scored 40 goals on 51 expected goals. It’s incredible to think that McDavid is on pace to hit over 150 points this season, and yet he’s been unlucky in terms of linemate finishing at 5v5.
There’s been a serious lack of finishing in the top six, and it’s hampering McDavid’s goal share. The issue is most prevalent on right-wing. Hyman has had a career year, but at 5v5, he could be much better at finishing his opportunities, as he has 13 goals on 26.7 xG. Kailer Yamamoto will also need to step up regarding his goal-scoring in the playoffs, although his recent production in March has been encouraging.
Overall, I’d say I’m more confident in Edmonton’s current forward core as opposed to last season’s, largely due to the significant improvement in depth scoring. If Draisaitl continues to play the way he has in March, and if McDavid’s linemates start capitalizing on his passes at a higher rate, this is a squad that will be unstoppable offensively at 5v5.
During the 2022 playoffs, Edmonton was the highest-scoring team, but no team that qualified for the second round allowed more goals per hour than Edmonton. It goes without saying that defence will be crucial.
Here’s a look at Edmonton’s top-four defensive pairs in the past two seasons.
Keith-Bouchard had a stretch of incredible puck luck under Woodcroft in the regular season, with an unsustainable 1.03 PDO that inflated their goal differential. Predictably, it regressed in the playoffs.
The upgrade from Keith-Bouchard to Ekholm-Bouchard is greater than most people think. The pairing of Ekholm-Bouchard has dominated in the minutes they’ve played.
In last season’s playoffs, Keith had the highest (worst) controlled entry against rate among the Oilers D. He also had more failed zone exits, botched defensive-zone retrievals, and turnovers leading to shots than any other defender (via Corey Sznajder). Meanwhile, Ekholm currently leads Edmonton’s defensive core in DZ retrieval success rate by a substantial margin and additionally ranks well at defending zone entries and exiting the zone.
Simply put, at his age, Keith didn’t have the foot speed to keep up with faster opponents in last season’s playoffs, so essentially replacing him with Ekholm will already make this team much better at defending the rush. Ekholm’s reliability at retrieving dump-ins is also yet another major advantage.
One of the biggest question marks heading into these playoffs is their projected top pairing of Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci. Under Tippett last season, Nurse alternated between Barrie and Bouchard as partners, but when Woodcroft and Manson arrived, Nurse’s primary partner was Ceci, and during that span, that pair was excellent. They played essentially half of their time against elite competition and did well in those minutes. They did decline in the playoffs, but that was largely due to Nurse’s hip flexor injury.
This season, they’ve struggled, playing worse than they did when Nurse was injured in the playoffs. The pair have been out-scored and out-chanced despite regularly playing alongside McDavid and Draisaitl. Away from Ceci, Nurse is at a 59% goal differential and 58% expected goal differential. Nurse can effectively play in the top four, but Ceci just can’t seem to handle that top-pairing role.
A while back, I did suggest trying Kulak at RD with Nurse for a couple of games near the end of the season. Kulak did have some experience at RD with Montreal, and he’s significantly better at defending the rush than Ceci. I think it’s at least worth a shot due to the lack of alternatives, although the Oilers don’t have a ton of time to experiment with things with just six regular-season games left.
I didn’t include the third pairing on the visuals since Edmonton often runs 11/7. For Edmonton last season, Kulak-Barrie was primarily their third-pairing, and they played exceptionally well.
This season, Kulak will again be the 3LD, and the Oilers will either pair him with Desharnais or run 11F/7D with Broberg in the lineup as well. The addition of Desharnais is a positive, although I do have some concerns about his foot speed. The playoffs are full of fast, aggressive teams, so this could be a big test for him.
Overall, on paper, adding Ekholm and Desharnais in place of Keith and Barrie does make the defence better. I believe Ekholm is the best player the Oilers have dealt for in a trade since Chris Pronger. However, a lot of their success will depend on the performance of Nurse-Ceci.
Here’s a look at Edmonton’s special teams.
It doesn’t make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things, but I’m not a big fan of using PP% or PK% because not all penalties are equal in terms of playing time. I prefer using power play goals per 60.
Edmonton’s already possessed one of the most lethal power plays in the league for the last four seasons, and this year, it’s the best it’s ever been. They haven’t lost a step since trading Tyson Barrie. From October to February, the team generated 13 goals per hour on the power-play, but ever since the trade, they’re operating at an even more impressive 14.8 goals per hour. The PP is Edmonton’s greatest weapon heading into these playoffs.
Their penalty kill is interesting, as it’s been a bit worse in comparison to last season. As a whole, the PK has been inconsistent, as there have been stretches throughout the season where the team has performed well, while there have also been times where it’s been flat-out awful.
There are already a couple of major questions and “ifs” on this roster, but perhaps the greatest one is their goaltending.
In the regular season in 21-22, Mike Smith was genuinely good. He ranked 7th among all goaltenders in goals saved above expected. However, he was a roller-coaster in the playoffs, with solid net results against Los Angeles, but he mightily struggled against the Avs. Still, both he and Koskinen are upgrades on whatever Jack Campbell has been this season. No goaltender in the Decade of Darkness has had a lower save percentage than Jack Campbell. As a result, Edmonton has been forced to rely quite a bit on Stuart Skinner.
Skinner had a great start to the season, and then had a rocky stretch in March, but he ended March on a high note by shutting out the LA Kings in a huge 2-0 win. Overall, this has been a very strong rookie campaign for Skinner. I wonder if Jack Campbell will get more starts in these last six games so the team can rest Skinner, and it’s likely a wise idea as they’ll need him at the top of his game.
All-in-all, there are various advantages the Oilers have over last year’s team, namely the addition of Ekholm, an improved bottom six, an even better power play, and hopefully, a healthy Draisaitl. The biggest question marks on the roster include the performance of Nurse-Ceci, their penalty-kill, their finishing talent at right-wing, and goaltending.
Hopefully, the team can go even further than they did last spring. With a wide-open Western Conference, it’s a very legitimate possibility.
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