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Conference Finals Preview: Edmonton’s forward depth and the terrifying Connor McDavid

The Oilers have three solid forward lines that the Avalanche will have to worry about.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Calgary Flames at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

As the NHL searches for a new player rivalry to succeed Crosby vs. Ovechkin, one of the league’s dream series will begin on Tuesday night. Whether Nathan Mackinnon versus Connor McDavid could reach those lofty heights can only be determined across multiple Stanley Cup Playoffs, but we are just a few days away from witnessing a postseason matchup for the first time ever that is about as compelling as the sport has to offer—to say nothing of the other “M” super-duper-star in this series lurking along the Colorado Avalanche blue line. The Edmonton Oilers have as much offensive punch as any team in the league, but whether they win this series will likely come down to how well they can defend Colorado’s attack.

Projected Forwards

Evander Kane – Connor McDavid – Leon Draisaitl

Zach Hyman – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Kailer Yamamoto

Warren Foegele – Ryan McLeod – Jessee Puljujarvi

Josh Archibald – Derek Ryan – Zack Kassian

Why the Oilers Are Serious Stanley Cup Contenders

I rely on advanced metrics a lot (although I push back against the notion that Corsi, simply plus-minus for shot attempts, is an “advanced” metric) to try to quickly highlight good and bad play in my columns because goals and assists are few and far between, and comparing someone with 3 points to someone with 5 doesn’t do much to inform you as to who is playing better.

McDavid does not have that sample size problem. He is the greatest offensive player in hockey by an extremely wide margin. McDavid has played six full regular seasons in the NHL and has led the league in points four times. His career-low point total is 97. Mackinnon’s career-high in points is 99. The Oilers’ prodigy has scored at a 30+ goal pace every nanosecond of his NHL career. He is averaging 1.45 points per game all-time in the postseason, which would put him ahead of Nathan Mackinnon’s 1.36 if he had enough games to qualify for the career leaderboard. Pull up any offensive stat and McDavid will produce a figure that places him among the all-time greats.

And it’s not just McDavid that the Avalanche must worry about. The Robin to his Batman, Leon Draisaitl, is ahead of McDavid and practically tied with Mario Lemieux for second all-time in career playoff points per game (1.606 to 1.607). Oilers detractors have long criticized this as being a one-line team, but even if that were the case (and it’s not), these two are good enough to drag practically any team to the Stanley Cup Finals. Mackinnon vs. McDavid is an inaccurate elevator pitch for this series because Draisaitl and Makar deserve to be on that level alongside them.

The elephant in the room here is Evander Kane, picked up by the Oilers after his release from the Sharks due to harrowing domestic violence allegations by his ex-wife, as well as violating COVID protocols by faking a vaccination card. He has played very well and provided the top-line power forward force the Oilers so desperately needed when it looked like their season was slipping away just before signing him. It would not be inaccurate to characterize Edmonton’s first line as two superheroes and a villain.

A Strong Second Line

Zach Hyman has been the Oilers’ third-best forward all year, and he’s had a knack for putting the puck in the net in big moments this postseason. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins never fully lived up to the talent that made him the first overall pick in 2011, and the Oilers will likely be looking wistfully across the ice at the man who was taken right after Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, but the Oilers’ second-line center has still been a positive Corsi player nearly his entire career. He has struggled to put the puck in the back of the net at the rate his advanced metrics suggest he should, but he is still a dangerous playmaker and legitimate top-six forward, albeit one who struggled quite a bit this season, finishing 261st in expected goals per Natural Stat Trick.

Kailer Yamamoto is another talented and inconsistent former first-round pick, and he and Jessee Puljujarvi have shuffled around the top three lines a fair amount this year. If the Avalanche controls the bottom nine matchups, don’t be surprised to see Draisaitl dropped to the second line to try to tilt the ice back in Edmonton’s direction.

The Bottom Six

Edmonton’s Game 5 against Calgary suggests that this section title should really be “the bottom three.” Oilers fourth-liners received 5:43, 3:16, and 2:48 worth of ice time in the kind of overtime game where coaches show their hand, while McDavid played 25:48 in that series-clinching effort. Edmonton knows that their best chance against anyone is to mash the “best offensive player in the world” button over and over and over, and that comes to the detriment of the fourth line’s ice time.

Like the second, the third is a bit in flux as Draisaitl will be moved around if the Oilers coaches feel their lower lines need a lift, and that adjustment will cascade down the depth chart. Puljujarvi has played with McDavid quite a bit this season, and among players who played 700 minutes or more this year, he finished ninth in Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5. McLeod was 68th while Foegele finished 71st, and it’s clear that the puck possession ability of this team extends far beyond their superstars. Edmonton is a top-heavy squad by virtue of their absurdly talented top two, but they can throw three legitimately dangerous lines out there even if they load up on their top line.

Who has the Edge?

This series will likely go however the Oilers' defense goes, and Nathan Mackinnon was very complimentary of Edmonton’s defensive structure in his post-game press conference after Game 6.

Among forwards who played 1,000 minutes or more this year, McDavid led the league in expected goals for at 77.46, per Natural Stat Trick (seven ahead of second place and the NHL’s leading goal-scorer, Auston Matthews). Leon Draisaitl was 17th at 58.82, Zach Hyman was 23rd at 55.37, and Kailer Yamamoto was 39th at 50.44. Offensively, this team has depth that can match up with anyone. However, their net expected goal figures are far less rosy. McDavid drops to 7th, Draisaitl plummets to 62nd, Hyman to 33rd, and Yamamoto to 77th. This column has detailed the dangerous Edmonton attack because there is more there to praise than there is in their defending. Comparing Edmonton’s Corsi chart on the season to Colorado’s demonstrates how at their best, the Avs are literally on another level than the Oilers thanks to a more complete 200-foot game by their group of forwards and a far better defensive corps.

Natural Stat Trick
Natural Stat Trick

Partially because they are rightfully always hunting for goals and partially because it’s fair to qualify McDavid as the best “offensive” force in the league, Edmonton’s top line is vulnerable to the attack. It should be interesting seeing which Avalanche lines they prefer to match it up against, as TV executives are surely more excited about the Mackinnon-McDavid matchup than the Oilers coaches are. How Edmonton navigates who McDavid and Draisaitl play against will likely determine how most of this series unfolds, but how the Oilers’ 2nd and 3rd line play against their Avs counterparts will have a lot of say in where Edmonton deploys their hockey weapons of mass destruction. Like the Blues series, the Avs have a clear edge when they are at their best, but unlike the Blues series, there is a 5-on-5 offensive juggernaut waiting to punish any Avalanche mistakes.