Round 1 Preview: Diving into the Kings’ playing style, and major keys to success for the Oilers

Photo credit:© Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
1 year ago
For the second straight season, the Edmonton Oilers will face the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Oilers finish the regular season with a 50-23-9 record, equating to 109 points. Since the beginning of January, they rank second in the entire league in points percentage. On the other hand, the Kings finished third in the Pacific Division with a record of 47-25-10. 
In the 2022 playoffs, the Oilers defeated the Kings in seven games, with Connor McDavid recording 14 points.
However, unlike last season, the Kings will have a healthy Viktor Arvidsson and Drew Doughty heading into this series, alongside a couple of new additions which include Vladislav Gavrikov and Kevin Fiala (although Fiala has been injured and may not be ready for Game 1). Joonas Korpisalo will be in net as opposed to Jonathan Quick last playoffs.
Edmonton’s new additions are highlighted by Mattias Ekholm, who’s been fantastic on their backend. They head into the series with a significantly improved bottom six, the best power play in NHL history, and a tandem of Stuart Skinner and Jack Campbell.
It’s safe to say that both teams have improved since the last time they met in the playoffs. 
Here’s a breakdown of LA’s results, their playing style, and how Edmonton can emerge victorious again.
*All stats via Natural Stat Trick and EvolvingHockey unless stated otherwise

Overall Results

First, let’s talk about the offence. The Kings aren’t particularly an elite offensive team at even strength, ranking 18th in the league in 5v5 goals per hour. Their expected goal rate is 19th in the league. They’re 11th in shot attempt volume, but second last in the league in average quality per shot attempt.
Todd McLellan’s teams are notorious for emphasizing quantity over quality, taking a ton of shots from the perimeter. Last season, they were 6th in shot attempts per 60, but 20th in average shot quality, so this isn’t something new.
In comparison to last season, their major area of improvement is their finishing talent. Last season, they were dead last in 5v5 goals scored above expected, but they’ve improved to twelfth. Adrian Kempe scored a hat-trick in LA’s final game of the season to hit the 40-goal mark, becoming the first Kings skater with 40 goals since 1994. Anze Kopitar is also scoring at a higher rate as opposed to last season, and the Kings have had a breakout season from Gabriel Vilardi, who has 23 goals. 
In terms of power-play goals per 60, the Kings are actually second in the league, only behind Edmonton’s historic power-play.
Overall, the Kings have averaged 3.3 goals per 60, which ranks 11th in the league. They’re an above-average offensive team, but nothing exceptional.
On the other hand, the Kings are quite strong on the defensive end. On the season, they rank fourth in the league in expected goals allowed per 60, and since the beginning of February, they rank first.
Last season, Los Angeles was 5th in the league in shot attempts allowed per 60, but 26th in average shot quality against, compared to 6th and 10th this season in both those categories respectively. While the Kings are still a heavily volume-based offensive team, they’ve improved at defending the quality of shots against.
Their overall 5v5 goaltending on the season ranks 24th in the league in regards to goals saved above expected, but there should be a big asterisk here. They began the year with a tandem of Jonathan Quick and Cal Petersen, but they were abysmal, combining to allow nearly 28 goals more than expected to.
Quick has been dealt to Vegas, while Petersen is currently playing for LA’s AHL affiliate Ontario Reign. LA’s current tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Phoenix Copley has been considerable improvements, combining to save about 12 goals above expected, a difference of roughly 40 goals in comparison to their previous tandem.
Korpisalo had some awful results in prior seasons, but I suspect they’ve largely been due to hip issues. Since his hip surgery in the offseason, he’s played quite well.
Overall, with LA’s new goaltending tandem, they’re an excellent defensive team at even strength. Since 1st March, Los Angeles has allowed just 2.18 goals against per 60, a lower rate than every team in the league but Boston.
Their penalty kill will be a concern, though. On the season, they’re 24th in the league in short-handed goals against per 60, and still rank 21st since the addition of Korpisalo. They’ll likely struggle against Edmonton’s superb power play.

Playing Style

The Kings carry the puck into the offensive zone at a higher percentage than any team currently in the playoffs (the first-place team in the regular season was Buffalo). Their top transitional forwards include Viktor Arvidsson, Blake Lizotte, and Kevin Fiala.
However, relative to their zone entry rate, they don’t generate a high amount of scoring chances, despite ranking third in the league in shots off the rush per 60. Again, this discrepancy between their rush shots and rush chances reflects their emphasis on quantity over quality. LA’s best players at generating rush chances are Arvidsson, Fiala, and Kempe, but outside of them, no one else is exceptional in this regard.
The Kings are also pretty solid at zone exits, ranking second in zone exit volume, and fourth in controlled exit efficiency. Sean Walker leads their defence in controlled exits per 60, followed by Drew Doughty.
As for the defensive side, no team in the NHL allows fewer chances against per zone entry allowed (not even Boston!). This is a huge improvement from last season, where they ranked 26th in entry chances against per 60. To my knowledge, the Kings are the only team remaining in the NHL that consistently runs the 1-3-1 NZ trap, and this seems to be the major reason for their excellent rush defence. Furthermore, the Kings also rank first in the league at preventing royal road passes.
It’s clear why the Kings have strong shot suppression results. They’re excellent at limiting space through the NZ, effectively preventing chances off the rush, while they also limit players from making dangerous passes. Fortunately, the Oilers possess two of the best rush attackers and cross-slot passers in the league in McDavid and Draisaitl, so it’ll be interesting to see how often they’ll be able to infiltrate LA’s superb defensive-zone coverage.
However, LA’s major defensive weakness seems to be their ability to retrieve pucks in the defensive zone. They rank 28th in the league in botched retrievals per 60 (turnovers following a loose puck retrieval in the DZ), and 30th in total retrieval success rate, ahead of only the Ducks and Blackhawks. Drew Doughty is second in the league in retrievals leading to zone exits per 60, but he’s also one of the worst defenders in terms of botched retrievals per 60. He’s quite high-event in this regard.
Furthermore, the Kings aren’t as successful at defending shots off the forecheck/cycle as opposed to shots off the rush, and while they’re efficient at exiting the zone with control, they don’t have the highest exit success rate. Some important things to note.
Mar 30, 2023; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defensemen Mattias Ekholm (14) and Los Angeles Kings forward Blake Lizotte (46) battle for a loose puck during the second period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Keys to Success for the Oilers:

With all that information in mind, here’s what the Oilers will need to do to succeed in this series.

        1. Limit LA’s offence to the outside

As shown above, the Kings rank near the top of the league in shot attempts per hour, but their shot quality per shot attempt is quite mediocre. LA also isn’t fantastic at generating dangerous chances off the rush, especially relative to their controlled zone entry rate.
The Oilers must perform well at limiting LA to the outside, consistently forcing them to take low-quality shots from the perimeter. I expect the Kings to carry the puck into the zone at a high rate, so Edmonton’s defencemen will need to do a good job at protecting the middle of the ice and limiting space for LA’s forwards to prevent them from taking dangerous shots off the rush. Having Mattias Ekholm instead of Duncan Keith in the top four will be a huge help for the Oilers in this regard. 
In last season’s playoffs, the Kings out-shot Edmonton 261 – 250, but Edmonton held the edge in high-danger chances, out-chancing them 120 – 100. Edmonton should ensure that this trend continues.

        2. Break through LA’s 1-3-1

On average, a controlled zone entry is 2-3 times more likely to result in a scoring chance than a dump-in, and the average shot off the rush is more dangerous than the average shot off the forecheck. A big advantage of the 1-3-1 is that it limits space for forwards to make clean plays through the NZ and carry the puck in, forcing them to dump it in more. The Oilers are a much more effective team off the rush than off dump-ins, so breaking through LA’s neutral zone trap will markedly increase their chances of success.
The 1-3-1 can be beaten with speed. McDavid and Draisaitl will need to be at the top of their games and attack off the rush with speed like they usually do. This certainly wasn’t an issue for McDavid last season, who had 47 controlled entries against LA in the playoffs at 5v5, a rate of 23 controlled entries per 60 which would rank first in the league. 
Another good way to break past LA’s 1-3-1 is active support from the weak side D in transition. This is where Evan Bouchard could be a major help, as he leads the defence in controlled entry percentage this season. Against LA in the playoffs last year, he was also the best defenceman on either side at entering the offensive zone with possession. Overall, Edmonton’s defensive corps should be stronger in transition heading into these playoffs, as the addition of Mattias Ekholm will help quite a bit in this area, and so would a healthy Darnell Nurse, who played with a torn hip flexor for most of last season’s playoffs.
Not to mention, scoring first will be critical in this series. Don’t let LA gain the lead early and set-up their trap for the rest of the game.

        3. Capitalize on the forecheck

While it’s statistically preferable to allow a dump-in over a carry-in, players must obviously be able to retrieve those dump-ins at high efficiency as well. Constantly having to go back in the corners to retrieve opposition dump-ins can often tend to wear defenders down over a long, physical playoff series.
Furthermore, the Kings are one of the worst teams in the league at retrieving pucks in the DZ and moving them with possession, and they aren’t as good at defending shots off the forecheck as opposed to rush shots. So while the Kings remain a sound defensive team overall, defending a strong forecheck seems to be their major weakness, something that the Oilers need to capitalize on. Edmonton’s forwards will need to consistently win puck races for dump-ins and constantly pressure LA’s defenders into making turnovers as they attempt to break out of the zone, most notably against Doughty.
This season, Edmonton’s best forwards at forcing turnovers and recovering dump-ins have been Derek Ryan, Warren Foegele, Ryan McLeod, and Zach Hyman; all of them must continue this play. When he’s on his game, Kailer Yamamoto can be a tenacious puck-hound, so he’ll need to be consistent throughout this series.

        4. Continue to dominate on special teams

Even if Los Angeles manages to somehow keep the series even at 5v5, it’ll be difficult for them to emerge victorious if their PK continues to struggle while Edmonton’s PP continues to dominate. The Oilers finished the season with the best power-play percentage of all time. 
Edmonton’s penalty kill must be in good shape as well, since Los Angeles does rank second in the league in power-play goals per hour.

        5. Get good goaltending

This one is also pretty obvious. I think Edmonton’s biggest question mark heading into the playoffs may be their goaltending.
Considering their excellent results since March, a healthy Joonas Korpisalo behind LA’s defence and their NZ trap could be a big test for the Oilers. 
Fortunately, Stuart Skinner ends the regular season on a hot streak, and after an awful season overall, Jack Campbell ends his season with two strong performances against Anaheim. Hopefully, their recent stretch of strong goaltending continues, as Mike Smith’s goaltending during last year’s playoffs was often somewhat inconsistent & streaky.

The Bottom Line

Expectations for the Oilers heading into these playoffs seem much higher than years before, as the Western Conference is wide-open this season. This is a huge opportunity for the Oilers to go deep into the playoffs.
I believe this is Edmonton’s series to lose. They’ve been a significantly better team in the second half of the season as opposed to the first, behind only the Bruins in points percentage in the calendar year of 2023. Since the acquisition of Mattias Ekholm, the Oilers have a fantastic record of 17-2-1. They’re the best offensive team in the league, highlighted by three 100-point players, and their defensive play and goaltending have been fantastic to end the regular season.
However, with all of that said, it goes without saying that you can never be overconfident in the NHL playoffs; anything can happen in a seven-game series. 
The Kings are legitimately an excellent defensive squad, and last season, the Oilers required seven games to defeat an LA team without Doughty or Arvidsson. Edmonton will need to continue playing well at both ends of the ice, because by no means is Los Angeles a weak team.
Game 1 is set to be on Monday. This series will be a fun one.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

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