The season that matters is finally here. The Stanley Cup Playoffs have arrived to bring closure to that 82-game grind and the dreams of one team out of 16 franchises will be realized, but not for another nine weeks or so. One team’s general manager and coach will be a genius; the rest will be second-guessed to no end as obituaries of the 2016-17 season roll out. Games will be close, the emotions will be high and the entire rule book will fit on one side of a cocktail napkin.
For the Edmonton Oilers, it is the first step into a larger world: one of spring months with meaning and not just waiting for another draft lottery win. The entire hockey world will ache with anticipation to see how Connor McDavid does in his first foray into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. How will the young Oilers respond when an entire city and fan base starved of recent success hangs on every puck possession?
For the San Jose Sharks, this will be the likely last kick at the Cup for the aging squad. After last year’s loss in the Stanley Cup Final, is there enough in the tank for a team that had such a short offseason to find the switch and return to complete unfinished business from last year?
The meat of both teams is up here with the big dogs. A living NHL legend in Joe Thornton and McDavid, the best player in the NHL, duke it out up here. But Thornton is banged up after a knee injury late in the season. Tack on that last season’s playoff scoring leader, Logan Couture, is missing half his teeth from a Brent Burns shot, and the situation looks dire down the middle for the Sharks.
Thornton’s left knee bends back in collision with Chaput pic.twitter.com/elSfBFatio
— Kevin Kurz (@KKurzNBCS) April 2, 2017
The Oilers’ offense starts with the Art Ross Trophy-winner in McDavid with Leon Draisaitl to his flank. The two stars are joined (usually) by the power winger Patrick Maroon, who’s found his game in Edmonton with 35 goals and 21 assists in his last 97 games.
After the uber-talented top line is rolled out, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Milan Lucic take to the ice. Nugent-Hopkins had only a 43-point season and the lowest points-per-game average in his six-year career. Lucic had 50 points and Eberle 51 points on the year. Lucic’s 50 points on the second line are a bit deceiving: 35 of his 50 points featured McDavid, Draisaitl or both, in the scoring play. For Eberle, the number is about half that at 17.
The reports are the Sharks will have both Thornton and Couture in the lineup for Game 1 in Edmonton. But Thornton himself is now saying he is day-to-day.
After saying there's "no doubt " he would suit up for Game 1 last week, Thornton altered his statement to "day to day" today #SJSharks
— Paul Gackle (@GackleReport) April 11, 2017
The question is how effective both will be with their injuries. Couture will play, whenever that is, with a hybrid mask to protect his damaged teeth and jaw. Thornton is reported to be skating well despite the scary knee injury. Either way, it is safe to assume no one is 100 percent at this time of year, and that especially goes for the Sharks’ top pivots. Couture’s ability to be a shutdown center while piling up the points as he did last year is crucial in the postseason when the top line is significantly diminished by the other team’s top defenders. Outside of Joe Pavelski on the top line and Patrick Marleau on the second, the wingers have been an issue all season long.
The health of the Sharks’ top centers is a concern until proven otherwise. Edmonton has the best forward in the world in McDavid.
The bottom-six forwards have not been lighting the lamp for either side. Mark Letestu is a power-play specialist, Drake Caggiula is a modest offensive force, and Zack Kassian has had an impressive bounce-back year. Other than that, the well is dry.
The Sharks have some experienced skaters and an emerging third line of Jannik Hansen, Tomas Hertl and Mikkel Boedker. The final line is a coach’s choice of Micheal Haley, Marcus Sorensen, Chris Tierney and whoever is not in the top-six winger spots.
Secondary scoring is key in the postseason. There is more reason to think that San Jose gets a bit more from the bottom half of the forwards.
Simply put, the Edmonton defense does not measure up no matter how you look at it. The Oilers have a solid if unspectacular pairing of an emerging Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson. Andrej Sekera is lugging around noted Corsi boat anchor Kris Russell. Youngsters Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning make up the final pairing. Benning, in particular, has been a bright spot for the Oilers. They signed the former Boston Bruins draft pick after he became a UFA this past summer and he has quietly put up a solid season with 15 points while also leading the defense with a 52.3 percent Corsi-for rating.
Over on the San Jose blueline, Brent Burns is the headliner and the Sharks’ leading scorer. He plays defense in name only and is a throwback to a rover. He is joined by Paul Martin, who has the job of making sure someone is skating backward should Burns’ foray into the offensive zone go awry. Brenden Dillon and David Schlemko are solid in the final pair with a mix of skating, skill, and grit.
The key is middle pair Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, who collectively were below par all year. Of any Sharks player to play more than four games, no two players had worse possession numbers. Worse, it was the first time either player ever had a negative Corsi-for rating according to HockeyReference.com. The two likely are head coach Peter DeBoer’s pick to head out against McDavid’s line.
On paper, it is nearly impossible to argue anything else. But the underlying numbers of Vlasic and Braun are cause for pause.
The Sharks’ power play is the worst in the NHL among playoff teams. Power plays are fickle things, but to be dead last in any metric is not ideal this time of year.
— Pete Jensen (@NHLJensen) April 10, 2017
Edmonton has the fourth-best power play among playoff teams and was fifth overall this season at 22.9 percent. The Sharks were 27th in the league in penalty minutes, so continued discipline could go a long way in keeping a dangerous man-advantage unit off the ice. Both teams had the same 80.7 percent penalty kill rate.
Advantage: Oilers (slightly)
The clubs have identical penalty-kill numbers but the Oilers have McDavid, who will find a way to get his points when San Jose goes down a skater.
The two most overworked goaltenders in the NHL now square off in the first round. One of the two will get to sleep for a week on a beach and the other will keep on playing. Cam Talbot led the NHL in minutes played (4,294), starting 73 games. Martin Jones was right behind him at 3,800 minutes and 65 starts. Jones’ experience in the postseason is the slight edge in two netminders that are statistically very close. Looking at their SAVE chart comparison, the medium-danger shots have been an issue for Jones over the years and represent the one sizable difference for the two.
Advantage: Sharks (by a goalie strap)
Talbot is slightly superior statistically, but it’s very close, and Jones knows what it takes in the postseason. Extra work could come back to haunt both netminders.
The Sharks face their previous coach in Todd McLellan, now the bench boss for the Oilers. Few would know the tendencies of the Sharks’ players like McLellan, and the majority of the skaters who played for him are still with San Jose. He has the Oilers running like a well-oiled machine. How much McLellan trusts the bottom half of the Oilers’ lineup will be evident quickly.
Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer will have to make some magic happen with his staff to fix the power play and find some wingers that work on the top two lines while keeping the effective combinations balanced in the lineup. His openness to bring in Dylan DeMelo should the defense need some additional skill will be something to watch as well.
Both are skilled, battle-tested generals behind the bench with their own problems and key decisions to make.
Who Will Win?
This matchup is close, and the series has an excellent chance to go long. The issue becomes if the Oilers hang on and force six or seven games, how short will their bench have gotten to get there, and will there be anything left? The Sharks have more balance, and the experience of their team is not to be discounted against a team for whom most of its stars were still in diapers when Thornton and Marleau started their NHL careers.
The Oilers took the season series 3-2, but as the players will tell you, that does not matter now. The injuries of Thornton and Couture are critical, but assuming both centers play, they tip the scales. The depth of the Sharks should carry the long series as two franchises at different points in their evolution play seven long games.