On Wednesday, the Edmonton Oilers will kick off their first-round playoff matchup against the Winnipeg Jets. While many pundits predict the Oilers will roll to an easy win – thanks to their regular-season dominance over the Jets – the Stanley Cup Playoffs are never that straightforward.
Winnipeg boasts talent throughout their lineup, starting upfront with their lethal top-six, and they are backed up by last year’s Vezina Trophy winner, Connor Hellebuyck. Edmonton will be hard-pressed to find a weakness here, but if there is one, it’s the Jets’ defence. Here’s a look at how the Oilers’ offence stacks up against the Jets’ defence.
Oilers Projected Forward Lines
Dominik Kahun-Connor McDavid-Jesse Puljujarvi
Ryan-Nugent Hopkins-Leon Draisaitl-Kailer Yamamoto
Josh Archibald-Jujhar Khaira-Alex Chaisson
James Neal-Ryan McLeod-Zack Kassian
The Oilers rely heavily on their Dynamic Duo, Connor McDavid, and Leon Draisaitl, for offensive production. Both players elevated their game this season, getting points at an astonishing rate (1.9 point-per-game average (PPG) for McDavid, 1.5 PPG for Draisaitl) and adding a newfound commitment to defense. They are both trusted by head coach Dave Tippett late in games, particularly Draisaitl, who is the best face-off man on the team. While they are expected to start the series on separate lines, don’t be surprised if they get put together for a shift or two, especially after a penalty kill or late in the third period.
Finnish winger Jesse Puljujarvi has been a staple on McDavid’s wing all season, and German forward Dominik Kahun rounds out the Oilers’ top line. Kahun has been all over the lineup, starting on Draisaitl’s wing, then he was scratched before spending time on the third line. He seems to have found a home playing alongside McDavid and Puljujarvi with impressive games together late in the season.
Playing on Draisaitl’s wing is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who has shown versatility this season by playing left-wing, at center, and also featuring on both special teams. The last piece of the DRY line is the “Honey Badger” Kailer Yamamoto. After a fantastic 2019-2020 season, Yamamoto took a step back production-wise in 2020-21 with 21 points in 52 games, a far cry from his 26 points in 27 games a season ago. Despite that, he has still shown his tenacity and fearlessness, and he is one of the hardest working Oilers.
The Oilers’ bottom-six consists of many players but most notably Ryan McLeod, Josh Archibald, and Alex Chaisson, who have played regularly. Since he was called up from Bakersfield, McLeod has impressed Tippett with his high-flying pace and safe defensive game. Chaisson and Archibald are masters of special teams; Chaisson is a strong net-front presence on the power play, and Archibald is the first one over the boards on the penalty kill. The remaining three spots could be filled by anyone. Jujhar Khaira likely has a spot locked up thanks to his physical play, as does Zack Kassian, who will look to replicate his dynamic 2017 Playoffs to stay in the lineup.
Who Tippett decides to play will depend on what he needs from game to game. Need some speed? Call Tyler Ennis or Joakim Nygard. Want reliable defence? Devin Shore and Patrick Russell will provide that. If veteran leadership is needed, James Neal and Kyle Turris will be the first to come to mind, given their playoff experience.
Jets Projected Defence Pairings
Josh Morrissey-Dylan Demelo
Derek Forbort-Neal Pionk
Logan Stanley-Tucker Poolman
Defence is by far Winnipeg’s biggest deficiency. They have no true number one defenceman, and while Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk are great in the top four, Dylan Demelo and Derek Forbort would be on the bottom pairing on most playoff teams. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff was reportedly searching for a player to step into the top four but could only acquire veteran Jordie Benn from the Vancouver Canucks, who may not crack the playoff roster.
The Jets’ defence is led by Josh Morrissey, the team’s 13th-overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, and Neal Pionk, whom they acquired from the New York Rangers last season. Both play a strong, two-way game and enjoy jumping up on the rush or into the offensive zone. After a hot start, Pionk has slowed down production-wise with three points in his last 10 games. Morrissey is not as offensively gifted as Pionk but plays a smart, reliable game, which earned him 23 minutes of ice time (TOI) per game.
Rounding out the top four are Dylan Demelo and Derek Forbort. Demelo, who was acquired at last year’s NHL trade deadline from the Ottawa Senators, has been a steady force on the Jets. His quiet, yet efficient play led management to re-sign him to a 4-year, $3 million contract during the offseason. Forbort, who signed a 1-year, $1 million deal with the team in October 2020, has been a sneaky addition. Similar to Demelo, he specializes in defence and leads the team in shorthanded minutes per game on average, along with 20 minutes TOI.
Competing for the final two spots on the Winnipeg defence are Tucker Poolman, Logan Stanley and Benn. All three have played on the bottom pairing during their time in Manitoba’s capital. The trio of defenders are each over 6-foot-2, with the rookie, Stanley leading the pack at a towering 6-foot-7 (from ‘Jets blue-liners feeling the heat,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 03/05/21). We don’t yet know who will stake their claim as part of Winnipeg’s playoff defence corps, but head coach Paul Maurice will likely lean on his veterans, Benn and Poolman, who have repeatedly earned the coach’s trust this season.
If any of Winnipeg’s top defencemen can dominate this series, it be will be closer than many may think. Pionk, especially, can be dangerous to play against as he can hurt you physically and on the scoreboard. The Jets could also get a Herculean performance from Hellebuyck, as he did when he carried the team to the Conference Final in 2018. Either way, this first-round matchup will be a fast-paced series. Both the Oilers and Jets have game-changers on their side, and they must decide if they’re going to show up for their team.
Hey guys, I’m Luke. I love to watch and write about hockey, specifically the Oilers. Writer for THW. Follow me on Twitter @Lukester551