The Edmonton Oilers are 18-7-2 under new head coach Jay Woodcroft and they’ve won their last nine games at Rogers Place. It’s a decent enough sample size to assume they’ll likely squeeze into the playoffs as Hockey Reference has the team at a 91 percent chance to make the postseason.
Edmonton is loaded with top-end talent that is paid handsomely to deliver and produce points — Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zach Hyman, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. We’ll also add Evander Kane into that category because if the Oilers didn’t luck out on the bargain deal for him, he’d likely be a $7 million player. That said, it’s assumed that these players should deliver in the postseason.
At this time of year, there are always discussions of who could be the next unlikely, but big playoff performer. In the Oilers’ case, it’s dubbed, the next “Fernando Pisani” — an unlikely hero, who isn’t amongst the highest paid on the team, but produces points, scores timely goals, and delivers an impeccable playoff performance.
Pisani scored timely goals and was an integral part of the Oilers reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2006. He finished the postseason with 14 goals and four assists in 24 games that year. So, the question is, which players on this current roster have the highest potential to be the next unlikely playoff hero this postseason? Let’s take a look at four potential candidates.
Ryan McLeod has taken great strides this season (literally and figuratively). He’s grown as a player and legitimately, his skating stride is amazing. Aside from the hands and dangles, if he would’ve put on a jersey with the number 97 on the back on April Fools’ Day, there’s a chance he would’ve been mistaken for McDavid with his effortless skating. He’s excelling under Woodcroft and has been given more responsibility on the penalty kill, a task he didn’t have under his belt at the NHL level before the coach’s arrival. He’s only on pace for 25 points in an 82-game season, but he’s continued to look more comfortable as the season has progressed.
McLeod has five points in the last 11 games, but an example of his adjustment to the NHL level was the goal he scored against the Arizona Coyotes just over a week ago. He gained speed through the neutral zone, received a pass from Kailer Yamamoto, split the two Coyotes’ defenders, and tucked the puck five-hole on Karel Vejmelka.
Why does he have a chance to be an unlikely playoff hero? His speed. It makes him very dangerous and he’s now realizing its potential. At 6-foot-3, it’s truly amazing how well he gets around the ice. Now that he’s settled into his role as a penalty killer, his quickness makes him a threat to score short-handed as well, just like Pisani did in overtime in Game 5 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final. He’s also versatile. He’s vital down the middle, but he’s shown he can keep up the pace in the top-six on the wing too. Now that he has newfound confidence to go along with his toothless grin, the puck has the potential to go in for him in bunches this postseason.
The small-statured player has been playing huge as of late. Yamamoto has always been dogged on the puck, but maybe the “Evander Kane effect” has rubbed off on him. He played nine games with him on the first line, and it seems his physicality has rubbed off on Yamamoto. Not only is there more jump in his game, but there’s also more bite. It’s noticeable that he’s more aggressive in separating the opposition from the puck and hitting whenever the opportunity presents itself. However, he’s since moved down a line to play on the second line as of late. Still, he’s playing the best hockey of his career with 15 points in his last 16 games.
He didn’t perform well against the Winnipeg Jets last playoffs. In four games he tallied a single assist, which ultimately was not good enough for a player playing in the top-six with two of the NHL’s elite. One year older and wiser, he can learn from last season what he has to do to be better. He’s been feisty — three weeks ago he was getting under the skin of Colorado Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen, who is eight inches taller than Yamamoto. If he can keep that up, along with his extra point production, he should have a big playoff outing. Also, his contract is up after this season, and it’ll be extra motivation to have a big postseason and show the Oilers he can play big when it matters the most.
Warren Foegele is an absolute dark horse pick. So why does he have the potential to be an unlikely playoff hero? He’s only on pace for 25-points in an 82-game season, but he has all the tools to produce more. He has size, 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, and speed to get around the ice. In brief glimpses throughout the season, he’s shown that he has fairly decent hands, like when he undressed a Coyotes defender and roofed the puck over goaltender Vejmelka, earlier in the season.
Foegele is a frustrating player to watch — not in the sense that he does many things wrong, but that it’s baffling why he doesn’t produce more on the scoreboard. He’s able to generate scoring chances within his skill set as a bottom-six forward and he’s very good on his edges for a big man. He also takes the puck hard to the net, either on a wrap-around attempt or by bullying past defenders. They may be low percentage scoring chances, but you’d think after that many attempts, “puck luck” would start going in his favour— a lucky bounce off of a skate, or even a rebound. Unfortunately, this happens very little for him.
But as they say, anything can happen in the playoffs. In 2011, Tampa Bay Lightning forward Sean Bergenheim finished the regular season with 29 points but went on a tear in the postseason where he tallied nine goals in 16 games. If “puck luck” can work out in Foegele’s favour, I can see the Markham, ON native having an offensive outburst similar to Bergenheim in the postseason. His game is suited for playoff-style hockey which involves crashing and banging and taking the puck hard to the net.
Jesse Puljujarvi is perhaps the most polarizing forward on the Oilers’ squad at the moment. The analytics community loves him, while others have an issue with his lack of goal scoring. That said, he’s still having a good season. He’s on pace for 50 points in 82 games and he scored a slick goal against the Anaheim Ducks when he created space with a smart stick lift and roofed the puck past John Gibson.
The Finnish winger brings so much to the game when he’s not producing points: he uses his big body to screen goalies, he wins board battles, and he dives for pucks to keep plays alive. Also, an under-appreciated ability of his is the willingness and hard work to get the puck in the captain’s hands.
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When it’s playoff time, If I’m Woodcroft, I’m telling him “hit everything in sight.” If he does, he not only can wear down opponents but also create energy from the crowd and for his teammates. I previously wrote an article saying the winger can learn a thing or two from Evander Kane. It took some heat, but I still believe it to be true. Not only does Kane have polish and finish around the net, but he also doesn’t pass up an opportunity to finish a check. If that quality rubs off on the young Puljujarvi, it should take his game to new heights.
Maybe less physical and young players, like Puljujarvi, stay away from the rough stuff because there’s fear that they’ll have to back it up with a fight afterward. In the playoffs, however, players are less inclined to go after others because they don’t want to take an instigator penalty. Even if they do, great! That’ll let Edmonton use their most potent weapon, the power play.
Puljujarvi had a goal and an assist in last season’s playoffs. Yet, he has the potential to have a huge postseason this year. If he can hit consistently, continue his great work away from the puck, and chip in with timely goals, the legend of the “Bison King” will soar to a whole other level.
Related: Oilers’ Puljujarvi Can Learn From Evander Kane
Pisani’s heroics in the 2006 NHL playoffs was legendary, and it will forever be talked about under the column of great Oilers’ playoff performances. At the same time, that was 16 years ago. It’s long overdue that a new unlikely playoff hero is crowned in Oil Country. Maybe this will be the year it happens.