How Edmonton’s top players have stepped up, and where the rest of the team must improve

Edmonton Oilers Vancouver Canucks
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
1 month ago
When the game is on the line, and when the stakes are high, your best players need to be your best players. Time and time again, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl prove they can step up when it matters.
Following a disappointing 5-4 loss in Game 1, McDavid and Draisaitl put on an absolute show in Game 2, contributing to all four of Edmonton’s goals in a 4-3 victory in overtime.
“There were a lot of storylines in this game,” said Vancouver coach Rick Tocchet following Game 2. “But I think the top storyline was McDavid and Draisaitl, who were terrific tonight.”
Alongside McDavid and Draisaitl, Edmonton’s top pairing of Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard was also fantastic, and as was Zach Hyman, the other winger on the top line. It was a dominant performance from a dominant five-man unit in Game 2, in which Ekholm and Hyman played over 25 minutes, Draisaitl played over 27 minutes, McDavid played over 28 minutes, and Bouchard, who scored the eventual overtime winner, nearly played 30. These are Edmonton’s five most valuable players, and they have been brilliant.

Diving deeper into the excellence of Edmonton’s top unit, and the team’s performance without them

Edmonton’s five-man unit of McDavid, Draisaitl, Hyman, Ekholm, and Bouchard played 16 minutes together at 5v5. In those minutes, shot attempts were 29 to 4, and scoring chances were 17 to 1 in favour of Edmonton, as they scored twice and held an outstanding 92 percent expected goal differential. Ekholm also scored a 4v4 goal assisted by McDavid and Draisaitl.
Simply pure dominance.
Currently, McDavid and Draisaitl lead all NHL players in playoff scoring, with 17 and 16 points in seven games, respectively. The Oilers are the only team in these playoffs with five players ranking top-20 in the league in on-ice 5v5 goal differential, and I think you can guess who those five players are.
Now, what about their performance without their top players on-ice? Eight teams are remaining in the playoffs, and here is a look at how each of them have performed without their top two scorers:
Without their top-two forward scorers on ice, every team has produced a goal differential above 47 percent and an expected goal differential above 49 percent — except the Oilers.
Some may point out that this method of analysis is unfair to Edmonton, as most teams’ top-two scorers will play on the same line, whereas McDavid and Draisaitl have centered their own separate lines for six of Edmonton’s seven playoff games. This is a fair point. So, here is a look at each playoff team’s results without their current top-two centers:
Using this method, Carolina sees a significant drop-off, while Vancouver interestingly sees an increase in goal differential but a decrease in expected goal differential. Nonetheless, this stat tells the exact same story for the Oilers.
A mere two goals in seven playoff games and a 29 percent goal differential without McDavid and Draisaitl is simply not satisfactory. In fairness, I thought the entire team played well in the third period of Game 2, and it should be noted that Edmonton’s depth does not need to be world-beating; while Edmonton’s top unit dominates their minutes, simply a net-even goal differential is probably the minimum expectation for the bottom-nine. But, this is a standard they have not yet met.

How can Edmonton’s depth improve moving forward?

Edmonton has two primary options with their lineup – split up McDavid and Draisaitl, or load them up on the top line. For now, my guess is that Kris Knoblauch will stick with the latter, as it certainly worked in Game 2.
The simple, straightforward answer to this question is that Edmonton’s depth forwards must be better, particularly offensively. Ryan McLeod and Corey Perry have yet to record a single point in these playoffs, and Warren Foegele has just one 5-on-5 point, a secondary assist in Game 2 against Los Angeles. Dylan Holloway scored twice in Game 2 against LA, with Mattias Janmark earning assists on both goals, but neither have produced points in any other game. Adam Henrique scored in the first game of the playoffs, but has been unimpactful otherwise, and sustained an ankle injury in Game 5 against LA causing him to miss Game 1 against Vancouver.
Now, it’s not all about scoring, and strong defensive play should also be a priority for Edmonton’s depth forwards, which is why I am not as harsh on Ryan McLeod. McLeod has only been on-ice for 2 goals against at 5v5 (with one of them being an own-goal, bouncing off Nurse’s skate and into Edmonton’s net) in 7 games, holding a strong 55 percent expected goal differential. Of course, that should not be an excuse for 0 points in 7 games – you would need to play Patrice Bergeron-level defence to compensate for such a lack of offence – but at the very least, his defensive play has been quite good, and useful.
For Edmonton to have success with McDavid and Draisaitl on the same line, the Oilers will require much more from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. At 5-on-5, RNH has 0 goals and just 1 primary assist, and he ranks last on the team with a brutal 32 percent expected goal differential. That must change moving forward.
My major qualm with loading up the top line is that RNH’s results on the wing have been far superior to his play at 2C; but, he could still be effective at center with the right wingers. In the regular-season, RNH ranked last on the team in 5-on-5 zone entries per hour, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the point is that RNH would work best with linemates that can transport the puck.
Foegele ranked 3rd on the team in controlled entries per hour in the regular season, while speed/puck-carrying is Holloway’s most valuable attribute. A skilled, speedy line of Holloway/RNH/Foegele is intriguing, and could be worth a shot. It is also a great opportunity for Holloway to display what he can do in an increased role.
As for the third line, I have suggested this numerous times throughout the past, but I am fond of the McLeod/Kane duo. With Kane’s scoring touch, and McLeod’s defensive capabilities, they fit well stylistically and complement each other’s major deficiencies. In the past three seasons, the two have played nearly 300 minutes together at 5v5, and Edmonton holds a strong 55 percent scoring chance differential in those minutes. For the other player on that line, the Oilers could play Adam Henrique in that spot, or, considering that Henrique is likely not at 100%, the Oilers could play him at 4C for the time being, potentially making this lineup much deeper.
After going scoreless from October through February, I thought Connor Brown played reasonably well in March and April. Despite his overall struggles, Brown interestingly ranked third on the team in zone entries per hour, and fourth in zone exits per hour on the season. Brown has played just one game in the playoffs, but I would consider playing him in the lineup to inject more speed and transition into the bottom-six. Considering Perry’s offensive struggles, the Oilers could give Brown a shot at 3RW with Kane and McLeod.
So, if the Oilers wish to load up the top line, perhaps the most optimal lineup looks similar to this:
Draisaitl – McDavid – Hyman
Holloway – RNH – Foegele
Kane – McLeod – Brown/Perry
Janmark – Henrique – Brown/Perry
Don’t expect Edmonton to run these suggested lines in Game 3, as they will continue with the same lineup that won them Game 2. But, I would be interested to see these combinations in action.

Line-matching and the Nurse-Ceci pairing

May 8, 2024; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Canucks forward Elias Lindholm (23) and Edmonton Oilers defenseman Cody Ceci (5) and goalie Stuart Skinner (74) and defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) watch as Vancouver Canucks forward Dakota Joshua (81) scores on Skinner during the second period in game one of the first round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Right now, perhaps the biggest concern for the Oilers is the Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci pairing. I’ve discussed this pairing’s struggles in detail quite frequently throughout the past two seasons, and so I won’t dive too deep here, but to summarize, the Oilers have been out-scored 3 to 8, out-shot 45 to 69, and out-chanced 38 to 60 with Nurse and Ceci on-ice at 5-on-5. In the playoffs, where the margins for error are razor-thin, a pair playing this poorly can cost you, and it certainly did in Game 1.
Playing Troy Stecher, or even Philip Broberg, should be an option, but it’s not something I would expect Knoblauch to do unless the Oilers sustain injuries or are on the brink of elimination with no other option.
To increase Edmonton’s chances of success with the current defensive pairings, the deployment should be adjusted. These are small samples, but here is a look at how Nurse and Ceci have performed with Edmonton’s top-three centers (note: RNH is not included here, as his TOI at 2C with the Nurse-Ceci pairing in these playoffs is even smaller):
Nurse and Ceci have been out-scored with every center they have played with, and have especially been brutal next to Draisaitl, but interestingly, they have controlled possession and scoring chances with Ryan McLeod’s line.
In Game 2, Knoblauch and Coffey limited Nurse and Ceci’s minutes, as they ranked 5th and 6th respectively in 5v5 TOI among Edmonton’s defencemen, playing less than 18 and a half minutes overall. Moving forward, this should continue, and I believe the coaching staff should attempt to have Nurse/Ceci on-ice with McLeod as much as possible.
Darnell Nurse has spent 44 percent of his TOI in the defensive zone (league average is 41 percent), and 37 percent in the offensive zone (league average is 37 percent). The major issue with the Nurse and Ceci duo right now is that they are spending far too much time in their own zone. They would heavily benefit from playing with forwards that excel at zone exits and can defend the neutral zone, which is another reason for playing him with McLeod, and why Brown could be a good option for the RW on the third line. McLeod/Brown could be heavily beneficial to Nurse-Ceci in regards to getting the puck out of their own end.
So, what are the ideal line matchups?
In Games 1 and 2, McDavid’s line primarily matched up against Vancouver’s top line of J.T. Miller, Pius Suter, and Brock Boeser, and it worked. Miller’s line generated just one shot and 0.23 expected goals in 14 minutes against the Draisaitl – McDavid – Hyman line in Game 2. Knoblauch should continue to ensure Edmonton can get this matchup, as the Oilers spend all their time in the offensive zone with their top line on-ice, thus shutting down any opportunity for the Vancouver’s line to generate any offence (a great example of why the best defence is good puck possession).
As for the other matchups, Elias Pettersson is technically Vancouver’s second line center, but Elias Lindholm’s line has been far more dangerous offensively in these playoffs. Lindholm has been on-ice for 3.45 goals per hour at 5v5, third on the Canucks behind his two linemates in Dakota Joshua and Conor Garland, while Pettersson has been on-ice for a mere 0.57 goals per hour (it is suspected he is not at 100%).
Considering that Lindholm scored 3 goals in just 6 minutes against the Nurse/Ceci pair in Game 1, Edmonton’s ideal matchups might be to play McLeod, Nurse, and Ceci against Pettersson, while RNH’s line and the Kulak/Desharnais pair are matched up against Lindholm. Again, Edmonton’s potential success with their top line loaded up could largely depend on RNH’s 5v5 game, and he must be able to handle this role.
In the 2023 playoffs, line matching was a major downfall for Jay Woodcroft, who failed to properly match against Jack Eichel’s line. For me, these playoffs will be a massive test for Kris Knoblauch to see if he can a significant improvement on the coaching staff before him. With the Oilers heading back home, Kris Knoblauch will have last change, and he must use it effectively.
Tonight, the Oilers and Canucks will play Game 3 in Edmonton, with the series tied. So far, Edmonton’s top players have largely been the driving force behind their victories, and now, it is time for Edmonton’s depth players to step up.
Let’s hope they do.
*All stats used in the article are via Natural Stat Trick and NHL EDGE unless stated otherwise
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)


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