With the first game five(!!) days away, we begin our in-depth preview of the qualifying round series between the Blackhawks and Oilers with a look at the forward matchups.
This series features a pair of forward groups that had very different regular season experiences. One produced plenty of shots, chances and attempts during five-on-five play but still surrendered more of those opportunities than they could muster. The other team didn’t fare well at all during even-strength play but was propped up by an unworldly power play. We’re guessing that last line was enough to reveal the identities of the two teams being described.
The Oilers forwards are — and this is a massive understatement — led by Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. They’re the top two assist and point producers in the NHL, with Draisaitl at 67 and 110, respectively, and McDavid at 63 and 97. Draisaitl also is fourth in the League with 43 goals while McDavid is 10th at 34. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is the only other Oiler within that duo’s stratosphere, clocking in at 22 goals and 39 assists. The next highest point total (34) belongs to defenseman Oscar Klefbom and the player Blackhawks fans will likely soon despise: Zack Kassian.
That top-heavy nature of the roster is likely why coach Dave Tippett elected to keep Draisaitl and McDavid on separate lines more often during the regular season. Last season, those two were together for 805:37 of five-on-five play. This season, that number was at 553:21 (a decrease from 10:19 per game to 8:38 per game, in case you thought the shortened NHL schedule was a factor there).
From a possession standpoint, Draisaitl and McDavid haven’t stood out this season. Draisaitl is slightly above the team Corsi For percentage rate (0.48) while McDavid is just below it (minus-0.18). Their possession quality isn’t far from the team rate either, with Draisaitl slightly above the team expected goal for percentage rate (1.06) and McDavid again just below (-0.98). What makes this even more surprising is McDavid has the third-highest percentage of offensive zone starts on the team (67.74%) and Draisaitl is eighth (58.86%). The bad news is neither McDavid nor Draisaitl need much time in the offensive zone to light up the scoreboard.
All the red around the net in the two photos below is indicative of the increase in shots from quality scoring areas that occur when McDavid (left) and Draisaitl are on the ice:
Look at what happens to those quality scoring areas without those players on the ice, though:
Containing McDavid and Draisaitl, two of the game’s best offensive producers, is vital in beating the Oilers in a five-game series. It’s especially important when it comes to Edmonton’s top-ranked power play, something we’ll dive into later this week.
Edmonton’s depth options are not entirely without talent. The aforementioned Nugent-Hopkins has thrived while spending more than half of his five-on-five ice time this season with Draisaitl. James Neal’s skills are fading but he may have enough of a wrist shot left to produce a goal at an annoying time.
Under-the-radar Edmonton player to watch
Kailer Yamamoto, the Oilers first-round pick (22nd overall) from the 2017 NHL Draft, had 26 points (11 goals, 15 assists) in 27 games since his call up around Christmas. Only two of those points were on the power play. An unsustainable shot percentage of 25 percent will likely come back to earth, but the attention paid to Edmonton’s stars have opened space for Yamamoto, and he’s proved capable of filling the net in those moments.
Like the Oilers, the Blackhawks had a similar glutton of goal scorers at the top of the roster.
Chicago’s top scoring trio of Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad and Dominik Kubalik scored 84 of the team’s 208 goals (40.3 percent) this season. In Edmonton, McDavid-Draisaitl-RNH combined for 99 of their 223 goals (44.4 percent).
The difference with Chicago is the Blackhawks’ second wave of scoring has the potential to carry the team further than Edmonton’s can. Jonathan Toews (18 goals) was a 30-goal scorer as recently as the 2018-19 season. Alex DeBrincat matched Toews’ goal output this season after a 41-goal campaign in the season prior. Toews has a history of postseason success while DeBrincat is a burgeoning sniper mired in a season-long slump that could have disappeared in the last four months.
Our colleagues at The Copper & Blue took a closer look at contributions from the depth forwards on each team and found the Blackhawks with an edge over the final 25 games of the regular season. That seems to be the major question mark on the offensive side of the ice for the Blackhawks in this series: whether or not they can find enough depth scoring to make up for the advantages the Oilers have with the one-two punch of McDavid and Draisaitl and their potent power play.