If you’re the sort who thinks that coaching matchups are compelling playoff fodder, the San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers are just the thing for you.
Of course, you’re also the sort who has to drink alone a lot because, well, nobody who is the sort who thinks coaching matchups are compelling playoff fodder has a lot of friends.
But now that it seems a near certainty that the Oilers and Sharks will be the one of the eight Stanley Cup first-round matchups (Anaheim-Calgary and Montreal-New York Rangers seem equally set), there will be a steady stream of Todd McLellan-comes-home stories. They are easy to do, have a compelling hook (he didn’t leave San Jose happily or willingly, the wound is still not fully closed over, and the turmoil of his last year was the most noticeable fail-blip in the last 15 years of Sharkery).
But it isn’t what you will actually be watching when the series begins April 12 (site as yet undetermined). What you will be watching is a wounded Sharks team (probably no Joe Thornton to start the series, maybe no Logan Couture, and the slow closing of one of the longest open windows in recent NHL history) against a young, intrepid, don’t-know-enough-to-know-what-they-don’t-know Oilers team with two of the best young players in a rich lode of great young players.
For those of you who claim not to pay attention before the Cup begins, that would be Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
The Oilers are fast, offensively cheeky and profoundly inexperienced. The Sharks are deeply experienced and paced for grinding. They both have one-goalie systems (Cam Talbot v. Martin Jones). They are both sloppy with possession (San Jose is1 and Edmonton 2 in giveaways) and bad in the faceoff circle (24th and 30th), but love blocking shots (San Jose is 1 and Edmonton 7).
But those are just yearlong tendencies compared against everyone else’s yearlong tendencies. The real issue here is whether age and experience can overcome infirmities and l’arn the faster and greener a thing or two.
Put another way, whether you prefer the Sharks with Jones and Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski but without Thornton and Couture to the Oilers with McDavid and Draisaitl and Talbot and no injuries of any real note.
Much of traversing the playoffs is being and staying healthy, and avoiding a series of high-leverage games early in the process. That won’t be possible for either team, since the winner likely gets the bruise distributorship known as Anaheim in the second round.
But we have never really seen the Sharks in the postseason without Thornton (although we came close when he played one-armed against Vancouver in 2011, and he was wrongly roasted in Boston in 2004 because he played poorly while hiding torn rib cartilage), and if you double-down without Couture, it is fair to wonder if the Sharks are simply too depleted to be effective. Their last month has been largely poor even before the injuries, though momentum between games in hockey is largely a myth, so the suggestion that Edmonton is ready to advance is not an unfounded one.
But nobody saw the Sharks as a Cup finalist a year ago either. Hot teams seek their own level, and though the Sharks have to find that heat, it is not unreasonable to think that as a playoff fixture they could do that.
It’s probably not the way to bet, though, not if Edmonton can maintain the faster pace and San Jose can’t get Thornton and Couture back and useful.
In short, while Todd McLellan will be a fun one-day story, this series has enough fascinating unknowns to carry you through those dark days while the Warriors are trying to navigate either the Portland Trail Blazers or Denver Nuggets. I mean, the effective NBA season starts in more than a month, but the NHL starts right . . . about . . . now.