As the Edmonton Oilers get set to face off with the Winnipeg Jets Wednesday night for Game 1 of their best-of-seven series, there are a few underlying storylines. Will Connor McDavid continue to roll after an incredible regular season? Can Mike Smith rebound from a bad 25 minutes in last year’s play-in round versus the Chicago Blackhawks? Will the depth help out the Oilers top stars?
It’s that last question that deserves a closer look. While stars like McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and, in a manner of speaking, Darnell Nurse, will get them far, it’s not enough to be a real contender if others in the lineup don’t step forward. At the very least, this team could stand to have one player be the 2006 version of Fernando Pisani during the current 2021 playoff push.
Pisani scored 14 goals in a 24-game stretch during the 2006 run to the Stanley Cup Final. He had a decent season, but honestly came out of nowhere to factor in as a major contributor to that team’s success. Is there another player like that in this year’s group?
The panel from our video show and Oilers Overtime podcast each took a stab at who they think has the potential to surprise. Below are the results:
Colton’s Pick: Zack Kassian
Acknowledging that Zack Kassian has struggled this season and is coming off an injury, Colton pointed to Kassian’s last playoff run with Edmonton in 2016 and thinks this is a forward who can be effective. “That’s a guy whose game kind of gets picked up in those big moments,” Colton said.
Kassian is slotting in for Game 1 and the assumption is that head coach Dave Tippett is looking to set a tone to this series and that Kassian will be key to that. If the forward knows what’s expected of him and his role is clearly defined, he could be a factor early.
The only potential concern is that Kassian isn’t too ramped up and takes a couple bad penalties. Like the Oilers, the Jets are a dangerous team if you give them frequent looks on the man-advantage.
Julian’s Pick: James Neal
There’s a reason head coach Dave Tippett has started playing forward James Neal more often as the season has wound down. He’s a proven offensive threat come crunch time, he loves to score and he’s got the ability to do so in bunches. Neal isn’t the fastest guy in the group and he likely won’t be on one of Edmonton’s top lines early, but he’ll get some power play time and if he catches lightning in a bottle — which is essentially what Pisani did — Neal could score double-digit goals in a few rounds of a playoff run.
If Neal gets hot early, look out. There was some chemistry building with Ryan McLeod and Alex Chiasson and it looks like that line might be shuffled up a bit heading into Game 1, which is a bit concerning. That said, Neal can play with anyone and if the Oilers need to make a move and switch things up a little, Neal could be a guy Tippett looks to.
Brian’s Pick: Josh Archibald
“Archibald kind of has that intangible quality that you can just see him rising to the occasion in moments like this,” said Brian who took the gritty, speedy winger as has choice. Archibald is the kind of player Tippett trusts in key moments, he’s got the ability to play in all situations and he’s quietly potted seven goals in 52 games for the Oilers during the regular season.
Archibald, like Kassian, will be counted on to bring a physical element to a series that might not be overly physical. The Jets aren’t known as a team that will try and out-sized an opponent or grind them into the ground. If Archibald can make life miserable for the Jets on the forecheck, he could be key to some turnovers and quick goals.
Archibald can be a momentum changer. He can crush you with a hit, score a short-handed goal or put the game away with an empty-netter.
Jim’s Pick: Jesse Puljujarvi
The reason for this pick is that I believe Puljujarvi is locked in on the top line with McDavid and his game-by-game improvement over the regular season will bring him into the series with the Jets on a high. He finished the regular season with 15 goals and scored seven of them in the final 16 games.
Puljujarvi is starting to use his size more and when the playoff hockey aspect of NHL games kicks in, the always-smiling winger could turn up the snarl and gravitate towards the higher pace, In other words, despite having no playoff experience, I don’t expect him to run from the upped intensity.
Even if he’s not producing goals early, he seems to have figured out that he can be effective in other ways and that will eventually lead to goals. Only two of his 15 goals came against the Jets this season and that makes him a prime candidate to explode offensively like Pisani did.
Jim Parsons is a senior THW freelance writer, part-time journalist and audio/video host who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes NHL news and rumors, while also writing features on the Edmonton Oilers. He’s been a trusted source for five-plus years at The Hockey Writers, but more than that, he’s on a mission to keep readers up to date with the latest NHL rumors and trade talk. Jim is a daily must for readers who want to be “in the know.”