Oilers’ Defensive Depth Will Be Tested by Jets

With the Scotiabank North Division’s playoff matchups finally set in stone, we can take a look at the Round 1 opponent faced by the Edmonton Oilers. The Winnipeg Jets will face the Oilers up to seven times over the coming weeks, and the two teams have no shortage of playoff history. While none of those matchups are recent, with a gap of 30 years existing since the last time they faced one another, both sides have had success versus the other in their histories (you need to go back to the days of the World Hockey Association, but Winnipeg has in fact beaten the Oilers). This season’s teams both have strengths and weaknesses, and it remains to be seen who will come out on top in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 Winnipeg Jets Edmonton Oilers

Few would argue the fact that Edmonton’s top forwards are the most talented players in the matchup, but a series win could certainly come down to defence and goaltending. The Jets’ forward group is dangerous, and while they only found a way to beat the Oilers two times in the regular season, they put up six goals in both of those victories. Spreading that scoring out over four wins in seven tries could easily mean the Oilers are once again looking toward next season.

Jets Have Injury Concerns

At this point, the teams know each other well, having gone head-to-head more times this season than any other in their histories. Edmonton will hope to keep the pace fast and lean heavily on their top line’s scoring abilities. Meanwhile, the Jets, on paper, have more offensive depth throughout their lineup, but the injury bug has reduced that gap. The number two scorer on the team, Nikolaj Ehlers, has been out for a while, and while he is skating with the club, he’s still listed as day-to-day. The aging but still competent Brian Little has been missing from the lineup since January and won’t be available either. Andrew Copp is expected back for the series against the Oilers, but both Pierre Luc Dubois and Paul Stasny are new additions to the injury report as of May 14th.

Winnipeg Jets' Nikolaj Ehlers Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid
Winnipeg Jets’ Nikolaj Ehlers and Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid (THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods)

Edmonton is much healthier, especially on defence. Oscar Klefbom has, of course, been out all season, but the rest of the corps has filled in marvelously. Edmonton’s defence has played so well that one wouldn’t guess from looking at the Oilers’ record that they’ve been missing a top-pairing defenseman all season. Tyson Barrie and Darnell Nurse should continue to produce points from the back end, and if they can stay even in plus/minus, they’re a weapon Edmonton was lacking last summer in the playoff preliminary round versus the Chicago Blackhawks.

Related: Four Oilers Unlikely to See Playoffs Unless Emergency Strikes

Adam Larsson has been a reliable defender in 2020-21, moving past whatever injuries or personal issues were affecting his play in the past. Likewise, Ethan Bear has had some injury issues this season but generally has done his job well. The goal for these two, and deadline addition Dmitry Kulikov, will be low event ice time. They might chip in a little offence, but head coach Dave Tippett will be happy so long as the score doesn’t change in the other direction while they’re on the ice.

Tyson Barrie Edmonton Oilers
Tyson Barrie, a new addition to this season’s Edmonton Oilers, has scored at a very high rate. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Beyond these top five on the defensive depth chart, there could be a bit of a carousel on the back end. Kris Russell is best suited to low minutes at this point in his career, and Caleb Jones doesn’t look to have earned his coach’s trust. Slater Koekkoek is returning from a lengthy stay on the injured reserve list and should be eased back into the rotation. Youngster Evan Bouchard has shown well in very limited appearances this season, but barring injuries to the players mentioned above, he is likely to watch the majority of the playoffs from the press box.

Oilers Can’t Look Past the Jets

Mark Scheifele is perhaps the most under-appreciated star in the NHL. Dubois, while his point totals have disappointed some since being acquired for offensive star Patrik Laine, has the ability to elevate his game, and so long as his injury isn’t serious, is an excellent second-line centre who can also shift to the wing. Kyle Connor is always a threat to score, and like his captain, he doesn’t get the praise he likely deserves outside of Manitoba. Should injured players like Ehlers and Copp make their return before the series ends, they could be true difference makers for the Jets.

Patrik Laine Winnipeg Jets
Patrik Laine, was traded by the Winnipeg Jets to the Columbus Blue Jackets. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Limiting games played in the early rounds is Edmonton’s best path forward. Goaltender Mike Smith is their only true starter in net, and at 39 years of age, he might break down over several long series. Mikko Koskinen can’t be trusted to carry the team, and Alex Stalock has zero Oilers starts under his belt. Anyone who remembers the fairytale run back in 2006 knows the importance of a reliable netminder on the path to a Cup championship.

A healthy Winnipeg Jets team can come at you in waves, each line adding offence and wearing down defenders and goalies as they do so. The longer a best-of-seven series goes, the closer the Jets will be to having their ideal roster on the ice, so it will be in Edmonton’s best interest to get out to an early series lead, winning in four or five games. A quick victory like that will move them past the Jets to the divisional round and allow them some rest in what will be a compressed playoff season.

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