Off the Top of My Head: The LA Kings, Playoff Predictions, and Dallas Eakins
Photo credit:Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
7 months ago
For the Edmonton Oilers, this is a season that was laden with uncertainty and question marks until the calendar turned to 2023. It’s also one that was marked by superlatives between the trade deadline and when the Oilers put the final touches on their regular season last Thursday, tying a team record with nine straight wins.
At 50-23-9 for 109 points after a 5-2 win over San Jose, what’s obvious is the Oilers aren’t only a different team than the one that took the ice on Oct. 12, they’re a better team than what GM Ken Holland and Jay Woodcroft began the season with. We’ll find out what that looks like starting Monday when the Oilers take on the Los Angeles Kings to open their best-of-seven series in a rematch of a series that went the distance last spring.
The Oilers allowed just 14 goals during the season-ending win streak and only six in their last seven games. They’re bigger and tougher and better at defending since the addition of Mattias Ekholm at the deadline. The hulking Swede scored 4-10-14 and was plus-28 in the 21 games he played after coming over from Nashville. The Oilers are 18-2-1 in that span. How good has Evan Bouchard been since being slotted in alongside Ekholm?
When we’re talking upgrades, let’s not forget the infusion of edge and physicality Vincent Desharnais has added on the blueline or the bang Klim Kostin brings up front. Then, there’s more size in Nick Bjugstad. He’s not an aggressive player but he’s a big body who gets in the mix. The line-up Woodcroft has to work with now can’t be pushed out of games. We saw that happen too often last season.
“In the end, when you get into a playoff series versus one team, there’s a lot of things that go into trying to find success,” said Woodcroft after the San Jose game. “In the end, you have to find a way to beat one team four different times.”
ANY WAY YOU WANT IT
Apr 11, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Evan Bouchard (2) shoots the puck against Colorado Avalanche goaltender Alexandar Georgiev (40) as defenseman Jack Johnson (3) and left wing J.T. Compher (37) and center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) look on in overtime at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
With career years from Connor McDavid (64-89-153), Leon Draisaitl (52-76-128), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (37-67-104) and Zach Hyman (36-47-83) plus Evander Kane (16-12-28 in 41 games), the Oilers can toast teams that want to play it fast and loose. As for scoring depth, the Oilers have 11 forwards with double-digits in goals. If opponents want to bang, fine. If they want to play it tight, sure, the Oilers can do that too.
The bottom line is the Oilers have more ways to beat teams right now than they did last season or even last October. And let’s not forget that the power play that has been historically good, connecting at a 32.4 per cent clip for a team record 89 goals — 54 of those goals from McDavid (21) and Draisaitl (32).
With all the superlatives I mentioned off the top, there is no better story than that spun by 24-year-old stopper Stuart Skinner in the blue paint this season. Tagged as the backup to Jack Campbell coming into training camp, Skinner taken the crease emphatically enough that many think he has to get some consideration for the Calder Trophy. Count me as part of that group.
Skinner went 14-1-1 in his last 16 games to finish at 29-14-5 with a 2.75 GAA and .914 save percentage. The 29 wins are a single-season franchise record for a rookie goaltender, surpassing Grant Fuhr’s 28 in 1981-82. Skinner was money in the bank in the stretch drive and the difference many times during the winning streak.
“It’s huge,” McDavid said of Skinner’s consistency during the team’s playoff push. “I’m super proud of him, and he’s well deserving. I don’t know a ton about goalies and their numbers and what they all mean, but what I do know is he’s won his games and we haven’t always been the best team in front of him. He’s always given us a chance to win.”
The Oilers were a different team for the back half of their season series against the Kings, both wins, than they were for the first two games. After allowing nine goals in two losses, the Oilers gave up just one in two tight games – the 2-0 and 3-1 wins – and have been playing their best defensive hockey for weeks. No coincidence that has been the case since Ekholm arrived. All this we know.
In addition, I think it’s highly doubtful that the Kings can keep the Oilers’ top end talent — McDavid, Draisaitl, RNH and Hyman — in check, relatively speaking, in this series like they did during the regular season. I see more separation between the teams now and more than there was going into the 2022 playoff series.
I don’t see the Oilers taking a step back from the level we’ve seen from them since March 1, especially during their last nine games. It won’t take the Oilers seven games to get the better of the Kings this time. OILERS IN FIVE.
SHOWN THE DOOR
The cadavers weren’t even cold in Anaheim and St. Louis when the Ducks and Blues sacked two coaches with ties to the Oilers by letting Dallas Eakins and Craig MacTavish go on Friday. I’m not surprised Eakins was shown the door, but I didn’t expect to see MacT fired after one season as an assistant to Craig Berube.
Eakins, 56, hailed as one of the smartest guys in the room by the analytics crowd when he left the AHL Toronto Marlies to take join the Oilers for the 2013-14 season, got his pink slip Friday with a 100-147-44 (.419) record in Anaheim through 291 games 2019-23. To be fair, Eakins got zero help from his GM in terms of personnel decisions in recent seasons. To his credit, Eakins showed a lot of class after getting the news.
Seemingly intent on re-inventing the hockey wheel when he got to Edmonton, Eakins got the sack here after compiling a record of 36-63-14 (.381) through 113 games.
As for MacTavish in St. Louis, he and fellow assistant Mike Van Ryn paid the price for the Blues finishing 14 points out of a playoff berth at 37-38-7 for 81 points. MacTavish is 64 and about to blow out 65 candles on the cake Aug. 15, but I can’t see him retiring yet.
THE PLAYOFF WATCH PARTIES
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