The Edmonton Oilers have clinched a playoff berth for the third season in a row. This was due to a number of key factors that played a part throughout the season including bringing in two great additions to the team, the MVP calibre play by both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, special teams, and the team’s ability to close out games.
Now that their ticket has been punched, the Oilers will be looking to do more damage than the past two seasons and continue the roll they’ve been on thanks to all of these factors.
McDavid & Draisaitl’s Star Power
You can’t say enough about the play of McDavid and Draisaitl this season, like every other. They are consistently at the very top of the league and prove night in and night out that they are two of the best in the game. McDavid has already passed his career-high in goals for a season with 43 while tying his career-high in points with 116. Surprisingly enough, he is shooting at his lowest percentage since 2016-17 but has taken many more shots, creating opportunities all around. McDavid leads the league in points by three after back-to-back three-point outings.
Draisaitl hit the 50-goal mark for the second time in his career and has stormed past that since now sitting at 54 and becoming the first 50-goal, 100-point player this season. He was also the last player to accomplish this impressive feat back in 2018-19.
Draisaitl set a franchise record by scoring the most power-play goals in a season with 23, blowing by the previous record held by Wayne Gretzky and Ryan Smyth (20). McDavid and Draisaitl lead the NHL in power-play points as well, racking up 41 and 39 respectively.
Not only have both of these players dominated in the offensive zone while leading separate lines, but they have also both been good defensively and efficient in the faceoff circle. Possession is huge, especially winning key draws in either end of the ice. McDavid has a faceoff win percentage of 54, the only time in his career he has even topped 50 percent. Draisaitl is right behind him and is consistent as always in the draw, winning 53.6 percent of his faceoffs.
Without these two playing like they have and driving the offence, the Oilers would not have gotten off to the start they did, their power play would be much worse, and the team would be far behind where they are right now.
Hiring Jay Woodcroft
The Oilers have had a complete season turnaround since Jay Woodcroft was hired to replace Dave Tippett on Feb. 10. At the time, the team was 23-18-3 (.557 win percentage). Since Woodcroft’s hiring, the Oilers are 23-8-3 (.721 win percentage). Before the Tippett firing, the team was securely in a playoff spot after a hot start. They dropped 13 of 15 games, both of those wins coming when Tippett wasn’t behind the bench.
The team looked like they had gotten back on track heading into the All-Star Break, but there were more questionable calls by Tippett in starting a returning Mike Smith in back-to-back nights, losing 4-0 and 4-1, resulting in the coaching change. Along with Woodcroft, Dave Manson joined him from the Bakersfield Condors where they had both coached and done very well.
The Tweet above shows that the Oilers had fallen out of the playoffs by the time changes were finally made. To go on a stretch of 15 games, come out with six points, and still have a very good shot at hitting the 100-point mark in the season is impressive. The offence has improved, the defence has improved, and the goaltending has drastically improved.
The goaltending has been night and day since Woodcroft took over as well. Combined, the three Oilers’ goalies have posted four shutouts, including back to back for Smith last week. There were no shutouts in the 44 games played under Tippett. The Oilers have also had four significant win streaks since he has taken over – a six-game, two five gamers, and they are currently riding a four-game win streak.
The lines were spread out much better and the bottom-six was finally given the opportunity to produce at both ends of the ice. Woodcroft was responsible for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins moving to the third line centre position, Warren Foegele breaking his slump and finally getting comfortable with the Oilers, and Derek Ryan having a career resurgence on the wing. Ryan McLeod has also been used well and is the team’s Swiss Army knife, playing anywhere he is needed and in the process, coming into his own.
Woodcroft has coached a number of the younger Oilers in Bakersfield, so he knew how to handle struggles and young players trying to find their way. His coaching is a major reason the Oilers turned their season around and are a dark horse going into the playoffs.
Signing Evander Kane
The signing of Evander Kane came just at the right time. He gave the Oilers a legitimate scoring winger who also adds physicality to a top-six that lacks that. Ken Holland and the Oilers took a chance on him in a time of need and it has paid off greatly.
Kane has gotten the Oilers more engaged in physical, hard play while also adding another level of offence to the forward unit that has looked stellar since he joined.
This mid-season addition serves as an early trade deadline acquisition that didn’t require the Oilers to send away any assets. Kane has come in and given McDavid an option who can finish opportunities more often than not. He has scored 20 goals in 39 games this season, becoming one of seven players to reach the 20-goal mark in each of the past seven seasons while playing at a 42-goal pace over a full season.
Kane is also playing at nearly a point per game pace (36 points) and he isn’t even a regular contributor to the fourth-best power play in the league. His hat trick that also included an assist in a big-time game just emphasizes the impact he has and the ability to step up at big moments and score goals when the Oilers need it.
The power play, albeit, not where it has been the past couple of seasons since it was seemingly unstoppable, is doing the right thing but getting unlucky. It didn’t help that Nugent-Hopkins missed a number of games, as he is a key piece on the top unit assisting in zone entries and puck control on the left side of the ice. Early in the season, the Oilers were clicking at over 50 percent with the man advantage. This was unsustainable and the losing streak didn’t help the team as nothing seemed to go in during that time. The team started the first 21 games with a combined 123.4 percent on the power play and penalty kill then saw it dip drastically. But the first quarter of the season allowed them to get in a great position early on in the standings.
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Under Tippett, the second power-play unit would hardly see the ice. But under Woodcroft, he isn’t afraid to throw the second unit out there if nothing is getting done with the top players. The Oilers’ second unit is still strong and is better than some teams’ top units. They have been able to produce when the top unit hasn’t on occasion.
At the other end of the ice, the penalty kill has been stellar. They’ve gone 38 for 40 in their past 13 games including 6/6 against the Colorado Avalanche in their clinching game. The team has gone from the bottom of the league to 18th on the penalty kill and has almost brought their PK percentage to 80 which is generally the league average.
Much more penalty killers are stepping up this season too. Draisaitl is the go-to man on any five-on-three against, while the Oilers can choose from Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman, Kailer Yamamoto, McLeod, Ryan, Kane, Devin Shore, Jesse Puljujarvi, and even McDavid typically near the end of games or at the end of almost every penalty kill.
The kill has won them many games down the stretch and has helped them secure a playoff spot. It will also be a big factor in the postseason too.
Oilers’ Ability to Close Out Games With the Lead
The Oilers started the season going 21-0-0 when scoring the first goal of the game, the second-best streak to open a season in NHL history behind the 1944-45 Montreal Canadiens (22-0-0). That streak by the Oilers ended on March 22 when they broke down and lost late in the third period to the Dallas Stars (from ‘JONES: Oilers chasing 1945 Montreal Canadiens for NHL record’, Edmonton Sun, March 20, 2022).
The Oilers followed that up with another loss after scoring the first goal against the Calgary Flames. Their record as it stands right now when scoring the first goal is 29-2-1. They started the season only scoring the first goal of the game 12 times in the first 44 games. They improved that margin in the second half, but have still scored the game’s opening goal less than half the time. It was a big hill to climb, but the Oilers have managed despite that.
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It’s no coincidence that they have played amazing hockey and been able to run up the scores lately. The confidence remains high when the team opens the scoring and they just continue to pour on the pressure. The work isn’t done, and all these key factors must keep contributing if the Oilers hope to make a playoff run this season.