The phrase “we’re in uncharted territory” has never been more applicable than it is now. We’re about to start a playoff round that was created just for this year and it will start at the peak of summer featuring players who haven’t participated in a game that counts in nearly five months. As if that wasn’t unusual enough, the players involved will be temporarily isolated from the world, including even their families, to take the ice in empty arenas while the world continues to battle a pandemic. There is no equivalent to what’s happening right now in the entire history of the NHL.
The playoffs can be an unpredictable show at the most normal of times. That’s part of the fun, every team that makes the second season provides hope that maybe they’ll get hot at just the right time and turn into a Cinderella story. This time especially, attempting to accurately predict who the winners will be has never been more difficult. Still, when you take a step back from all the unusual circumstances, you are still left with the same teams that we’ve gotten to know through the 2019-20 campaign and the strengths and weaknesses they showed during the regular season still offer us a window into how they should perform going forward. It’s with this in mind we start our look at the qualifying series by previewing the Edmonton Oilers versus the Chicago Blackhawks.
At first glance this looks like it should be a relatively one-sided affair. Edmonton finally seemed to hit their stride this season with a 37-25-9 record before the pause. They featured the top two scorers in the league in Connor McDavid, who had 34 goals and 97 points in 64 games, and Leon Draisaitl, who finished with 43 goals and 110 points in 71 contests. In terms of points-per-game among players who participated in at least 10 contests, McDavid and Draisaitl were not only the lone two players to average over 1.50 PPG, they were also the only two who finished above 1.40 PPG. In other words, no other player in the league came close to matching their offensive dominance.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Blackhawks were in the midst of another rebuilding season. They won five of their last seven games before the pause, but that just elevated them to a 32-30-8 record. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities that the Blackhawks could have still made the playoffs with a hot finish, but the odds were stacked heavily against them. So to even call the Blackhawks a playoff team feels like a bit of stretch. They’re in the qualifying round, but if the season had continued uninterrupted then they’d have probably missed the playoffs for a third straight campaign. So Edmonton should roll over Chicago right? Well, it might not be that simple.
Edmonton was a bit of a question mark team throughout the regular season and that remains the case going into their battle with the Blackhawks. Draisaitl and McDavid are amazing and after that, they also have Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who is a big offensive weapon in his own right. Then their offense potentially falls off a cliff. Beyond those three, Edmonton has no other players who scored at least 20 goals or 35 points. In contrast, Chicago has five players who finished with at least 35 points. It’s telling that despite Edmonton having the two best forwards in the game, they finished outside the top-10 in goals scored and were just 15 ahead of Chicago.
If McDavid or Draisaitl are successfully contained by Chicago, then that would be a huge step towards pulling off the upset. It’s a lot easier said than done – there’s a reason why those two are the best overall, but Chicago did manage to take two of their three match-ups against Edmonton during the regular season. Over those contests, McDavid never managed to record a single point, though Draisaitl did find success. In the interest of full disclosure, McDavid missed one of those three games, though oddly enough that was actually the one game Edmonton won.
There are some potential players that could kill that “Edmonton isn’t deep enough” narrative though. One is Kailer Yamamoto. He made his season debut on Dec. 31 and quickly hit his stride, scoring 11 goals and 26 points in 27 games. If he can play like that in the qualifying round, then that will take a lot of the pressure off Edmonton’s big two, but I’m a little uncertain as to how he’ll do after the long pause. That’s a factor for every player and there’s some speculation that young players – Yamamoto is 21 years old – will have an easier time finding their rhythm again. However, he also has just 53 career games worth of NHL experience, so it would be asking of a lot him to rise to the occasion in the playoffs under normal circumstances and when you throw in the start-stop-start nature of what’s happened, he might have a particularly difficult time readjusting to this level.
James Neal is another candidate on the Oilers to step up. He got off to an incredibly hot start in 2019-20 with 11 goals in 14 games, but fizzled out after that. After the long pause, is it possible that he’ll hit the ground running again? I don’t think you can count on Neal anymore, but he’s certainly worth keeping in mind.
That said, Chicago’s got a really good combination of youthful energy and playoff experience that Edmonton might find it tough to match. Dominik Kubalik, Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome and Alexander Nylander provide the Blackhawks with a strong young core and they can lean on the steady leadership of captain Jonathan Toews and of course Patrick Kane, who had 33 goals and 84 points in 70 games before the pause and has 123 points in 127 career postseason contests.
This is the Oilers’ season to lose as they are the clear favorites, but the Blackhawks are more than capable of giving Edmonton trouble and even potentially pulling off the upset.
Players to Watch
Kailer Yamamoto (EDM) – As noted above, Yamamoto gave the Oilers a big boost during the second half of the regular season and if he can pick up where he left off, it will go a long way towards addressing the concerns about Edmonton’s offensive depth. That said, his short NHL resume makes him a big question mark in these playoffs.
Dominik Kubalik (CHI) – With 30 goals and 46 points in 68 games, he was one of the league’s best rookies, but the real story was his second-half success. From Dec. 19th onwards, Kubalik scored 22 goals and 33 points in 35 contests. Will he be able to pick up where he left off? Like Yamamoto, Kubalik doesn’t have much experience to fall back on and none in the NHL playoffs.
Mike Green (EDM) – The Oilers acquired Green from Detroit on Feb. 24th, but he only got to play in two games with Edmonton before suffering a sprained MCL. Due to the pause, his injury is now long behind him, so he’ll be set to help the Oilers in the qualifying round. He’s not the offensive force he once was, but he still can eat up big minutes.
Patrick Kane (CHI) – Kane’s 123 career playoff points ranks sixth among all active players. Given the Oilers’ relative lack of playoff experience, having guys like Kane leading the charge for Chicago could be a big advantage for the Blackhawks. At 31, Kane is still a force to be reckoned with too, scoring 33 goals and 84 points in 70 contests before the pause and he also typically hits the ground running after time off. In his career, he has 59 goals and 142 points in 136 October contests.
The goaltending – I’m going to cheat here because there’s no one goaltender to highlight in this series. Conceivably, any combination of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen for Edmonton could end up playing in Game 1. Chicago end Edmonton each played in 70 regular season games and neither squad had a goaltender who started in 40 or more of those contests. Crawford is the likely starter in Chicago after the Blackhawks' trade of Robin Lehner, but Crawford was unavailable for the start of training camp. If he can't play, then Malcolm Subban, who has just 66 career NHL games on his resume and no playoff experience, might be between the pipes.