The Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is in full swing. With all four matchups entering the home stretch, there are plenty of intriguing storylines, players to watch, and upsets brewing while the Cup contenders are starting to separate themselves from the pack.
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With eight teams remaining, there are 16 possible Stanley Cup Final matchups. While the New Jersey Devils facing the Edmonton Oilers is unlikely, it would be the most exciting Final. Casual and passionate fans alike who don’t have a team in the playoffs should be pulling for a Devils-Oilers matchup, as it would be one for the ages, one that can be remembered for years to come.
McDavid vs. Hughes
This is far and beyond the most intriguing storyline of a possible Devils-Oilers matchup: Connor McDavid against Jack Hughes, with both players looking to hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time in their careers. Both players are former numbers one overall draft picks, two of the most exciting players in the game, and most importantly, two of the best players in the NHL.
Hughes, in his fourth year in the NHL, finally put himself into that elite tier among the likes of McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews, and the other greats in the game. This season, Hughes showed that he could carry a team and lead one of the league’s best offenses, scoring 43 goals and 56 assists to help the Devils return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2017-18 season. His skating and overall skill set notably stand out as he can take over a game at any point, something he’s shown in the playoffs, recently scoring two goals and two assists in an 8-4 win over the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 3.
McDavid, meanwhile, has put himself into a tier of his own. He’s the best player in the league and looks poised to win his third Hart Trophy in only his eighth season after scoring 64 goals and 89 assists, leading the league in both categories. He’s not only a human highlight reel, but at any point, he can take over a game or even a series as he did last year.
Against the Calgary Flames in the Second Round, he scored three goals and nine assists in the five-game series victory, allowing the Oilers to win the “Battle of Alberta.” McDavid has accomplished just about everything in his career, but there’s still one barrier left for him to clear: lead his team to a Stanley Cup title. It’s something the other legendary players have done. But he has yet to reach the Final and only appeared in the Western Conference Final once, with the Oilers getting swept by the Colorado Avalanche last year.
A matchup between McDavid and Hughes would feature the best player in the game and the future best player in the game or, more accurately, the player looking to take the title as the best in the league. Along with the greater implications of the series, the on-ice matchup would be one to watch. The two elite skaters can take over a game at any point and dominate it. In one minute, McDavid could carry the puck end-to-end for a remarkable goal, and the next minute Hughes can slip past multiple skaters for a big goal of his own. The NHL hasn’t had a Final with the two best, most exciting players going up against one another in years, and the Devils against the Oilers would provide just that.
Draisaitl vs. Hischier: The League’s Best “Robins”
Just as Batman had Robin as his reliable sidekick, Leon Draisaitl and Nico Hischier are two of the best secondary stars in the league. They are both viewed as the second-best players on their teams, but without question, both skaters are elite and two of the best in the NHL.
Draisaitl outplays McDavid at times and carries the Oilers as he has throughout the playoffs. In the First Round against the Los Angeles Kings, he scored a team-high seven goals to fuel the six-game series victory. In Game 1 of the Second Round against the Vegas Golden Knights, his four-goal effort kept the Oilers competitive in the 6-4 loss. Draisaitl plays in McDavid’s shadow, but after winning the Hart Trophy in 2020, he proved that he is more than a secondary star and is one of the best in the game who can carry a team.
Hughes is the most dynamic player on the Devils, but an argument can be made for Hischier being the more valuable skater on the team. While he doesn’t have the same offensive capabilities, he centers a top-six line and contributes in all facets of the game. Hischier scored 31 goals and 49 assists this season while also contributing 2.8 defensive point shares and 61 blocked shots on the defensive end of the ice, making him a Selke Trophy finalist. He does a lot of the dirty work, and his contribution to the Devils makes the team not only elite offensively but a well-rounded one that can compete for the Cup.
Throughout the history of the game, there have been plenty of sidekicks that have had to live in the shadow of star players on their own teams. Mark Messier was on the same team as Wayne Gretzky, the best player in NHL history. Jaromir Jagr played alongside Mario Lemieux, the face of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the league in the 1990s. Recently, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews, and Mikko Rantanen played second fiddle to stars on their teams that went on to win the Cup.
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However, the secondary stars are integral to a team’s success, especially in the playoffs. When opponents try to take the best player out of the game, the next best needs to step up and take control. Draisaitl and Hischier have proven they can do that and lead their teams when needed. In a matchup between the two clubs, the two skaters would likely determine which team wins the Stanley Cup in the end, especially if McDavid and Hughes are closely watched.
Devils & Oilers Have Defenses Built for the Modern Game
The Oilers appear to have an awful defensive unit that isn’t built to win the Cup; after all, they allowed 3.12 goals per game in the regular season. However, after they acquired Mattias Ekholm at the trade deadline, the defense turned around and became one of the best in the NHL. Since the deadline, the Oilers have allowed only 2.66 goals per game and, more importantly, have a defense built to make a playoff run. Along with Ekholm, they have two-way players, with Evan Bouchard playing the point, shot-blocking and hard-hitting skaters like Darnell Nurse, and experience in the later pairings with Cody Ceci and Brett Kulak.
The Devils, meanwhile, constructed their offense in the offseason to compete. Last year, they allowed 3.68 goals per game, which was the fourth-worst in the league. To fix the unit, general manager (GM) Tom Fitzgerald acquired veteran defenseman John Marino, who wasn’t a two-way player but a reliable skater in the defensive zone, exactly what the unit needed. Fitzgerald also looked ahead to improve the defense, drafting Simon Nemec with the second overall pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft and selecting Luke Hughes in the first round of the 2021 Draft, but Marino was the immediate fix.
With Marino in the lineup, the Devils’ defense also checks all the boxes necessary to win a Cup. Dougie Hamilton is the two-way player that opens up the offense at the point, while Marino and Ryan Graves update the unit defensively. Jonas Seigenthaler, meanwhile, is not only the young presence the unit needs, but he also provides a valued, shot-blocking attitude to round out the defense.
In a league that is becoming more offensive-minded, defensive units need to not only become more potent at the point but also more versatile. The Devils and Oilers have defenses that not only can help out the offense but also limit opponents in a variety of ways.
The Winner Starts Dynasty Talk
The Oilers were the team of the 1980s, winning five titles in a six-year span led by Gretzky, Messier, and a star-studded roster with some of the greatest teams in NHL history. Since the 80s, the fans have been waiting for the team to return to the glory years when winning was the norm. After a decade of darkness, where the Oilers failed to make the playoffs and finished in last place six times, they finally returned to being a competitive team. Now, the expectations are to win the Stanley Cup, or the season is a failure. McDavid and Draisaitl were supposed to kickstart the new era of Oilers hockey with multiple playoff runs and a few titles but have yet to appear in the Final.
The Devils don’t have the same highs and lows as a franchise that the Oilers have. However, they were the team of the late 1990s and early 2000s, winning three titles and appearing in four from 1995-2003. Like the Oilers, the Devils experienced a decade of darkness, making the playoffs once from 2013-2021 and finishing in last place four times. With Hughes, Hischier, and a young, talented, and fast roster, they look like the team of the future, one that can win the Cup multiple times.
For both teams, if they win the Stanley Cup, the conversation will be if they can become the next dynasty in the NHL and continue the legacies of their franchise’s pasts. The Oilers winning it all would reward two of the best players in the game and finally bring the Cup back to Canada for the first time since 1993, but it’d also start the count for how many titles this team can win. Gretzky and Messier won four titles together, so how many can McDavid and Draisaitl win? The Devils, meanwhile, could launch one of the greatest modern dynasties with a win, as their young core is only starting to enter the best years of their careers. A Final between the Devils and Oilers allows fans to potentially witness the start of something special, a start of a modern dynasty.
Speed & Youth Continue to Change The Game
Last year, goals were up, and offenses were taking over the game. The scoring spike felt like an oddity, but this season, goals were up again, with skill on the offensive end of the ice dominating the game. In the modern game, the emphasis is on skill and the ability to pile on the goals. Forwards are more dynamic than ever before, and defensemen are asked to contribute to the offense with outlet passes, zone entries, puck-handling, and playmaking at the point.
The Devils against the Oilers would epitomize the importance of skill and playmakers in an offense-driven league. The Devils are a young, fast-paced team that can gash any defense on the rush and find the back of the net with quick passes and puck movement near the net. The Oilers not only can overwhelm a defense on the rush but overpower a team in the offensive zone, especially on the power play, as McDavid and Draisaitl pick teams apart with their playmaking ability.
The Avalanche won the Stanley Cup last year with a versatile team but one that notably overwhelmed opponents with speed and a high-powered offense. The Devils or Oilers winning the Cup this year would further prove the importance of a high-powered offense in order to win. Both teams can win in a multitude of ways, but the prominent way they win is with their offenses imposing their will on the opposition.
An added bonus to a Devils-Oilers Final is that it would pit two of the top-five best offenses against each other. The Devils averaged 3.52 goals per game this season, while the Oilers averaged a league-leading 3.96 goals per game. The two teams would provide fans with a high-scoring Final that would see a plethora of goals and highlight reel moments.