EDMONTON — The regular season gives us the questions, and then the playoffs tend to provide the answers.
On a macro level, we watched an Edmonton Oilers team flirt with first place in the Pacific Division for most of the 2019-20 season. Was it real? The stress test that is the National Hockey League playoffs should answer that for us.
On a micro level, fans loved the way Ethan Bear played, how young guys like Kailer Yamamoto and Caleb Jones came along, and wondered if Andreas Athanasiou was worth the price GM Ken Holland paid at the trade deadline.
A series or two of playoff hockey is going to sort those answers out — even if those series are played out at a neutral site in July and August.
Which players will get the chance to shine when these playoffs begin? Well, everyone is healthy, so it should be a true battle for ice time.
Said head coach Dave Tippett, “I’d be amazed coming out of a long break like this if we don’t use all of the defencemen and forwards you have.”
How will he use them? For how long?
We ask the questions below, as we pose the four biggest questions that face the Edmonton Oilers in the 2020 playoffs.
Draisaitl has his wingers, but what about McDavid?
Let’s be clear: both Oilers superstars have stated numerous times that they’re more interested in team success than personal success. And both agree that deploying them on separate lines at five-on-five makes Edmonton a much tougher team to defend.
But somehow those sentiments rolled out in real-time as Draisaitl was fitted with the highly skilled Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and feisty young Kailer Yamamoto on a regular basis, while McDavid rolled through a rotating cast of wingers who don’t necessarily raise his game the way Draisaitl’s wingers do for him.
Holland brought in Athanasiou to play on McDavid’s flank, and thus far, the returns have been tepid. James Neal is a nice compliment from the faceoff dot down, but for the other 170 feet of ice he slows McDavid’s game down. Zack Kassian is a good fit on right wing all day long — if McDavid could be furnished with a Nugent-Hopkins equivalent on the left side.
It’s a safe bet that McDavid will play out the season at status quo, knowing that Holland has had only had one season to fix a franchise that was badly broken when he walked in the door. But at some point McDavid deserves a more equitable distribution of wingers, rather than being asked to haul around whatever is left over once Draisaitl is taken care of.
Who gets the start between the pipes?
We’d bet our beer fridge that Mike Smith gets the Game 1 nod over Mikko Koskinen. Tippett has shown that even when both goaltenders are stopping the puck at the same rate, he prefers the break-out advantage that Smith’s puck handling skills provide.
But, what if their puck-stopping abilities aren’t equal? What if the 38-year-old Smith has a hard time firing up his engines after a lengthy pause in the hockey season?
“We’re going to go with the mindset that both guys are capable of winning for us,” said Tippett, who is aware that Smith has played 24 NHL playoff games while Koskinen has not yet played his first. “There is playoff experience, and those are things you’ve got to be taking into consideration, whether you’re picking a goaltender, a forward or a defenceman.”
On a team where the starts were split roughly evenly this season — 37 for Smith, 34 for Koskinen — do you flip the switch and observe the hockey playoff tradition of riding the hot goalie? Do you institute the “in while you win” theory, changing starters after each loss? What if a guy makes 40-some saves and loses in double-overtime?
The most important position on the team likely poses the biggest question mark in Edmonton. The good news? At least they have two guys who can play, which lessens the margin of error somewhat.
Which defencemen will make up bottom pairing?
Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson. Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear. Those are the Oilers’ top two defensive pairings and that is not likely to change.
So, what of Caleb Jones, Matt Benning, Kris Russell and Mike Green? Four guys for two jobs. Two lefties — Jones and Russell — and two righties.
Green was acquired at the deadline for a fourth-round pick, which means the GM wouldn’t mind seeing the coach employ him in the lineup to justify his cost. And young Caleb Jones took a huge step this year, according to Tippett.
“His expectations of being an NHL player are finally to the point where he understands that he is an NHL player. When a player gets that, he doesn’t play nervous. He knows he belongs,” Tippett said. “He’s a good skater, moves the puck well. He still has some young player in him, but sometimes that’s not a bad thing, that energy that comes out from that.”
These weirdly timed playoffs are the types of moments where young players can grab a job and never give it back. If Jones does that with a top-six job this summer — with Evan Bouchard, Dmitri Samorukov and Philip Broberg waiting in the wings — you can bet that Holland will look at moving a veteran defenceman after the season, as he tries to find that elusive winger for McDavid.
Athanasiou: To sign or not to sign?
The notion of not qualifying pending restricted free agent Andreas Athanasiou seems ridiculous. Holland gave up two second-round picks for him at the deadline, and his speed makes Athanasiou seemingly the perfect winger for McDavid.
He started slowly upon joining the Oilers, however, that didn’t last with McDavid. In this re-start, he’ll almost certainly get another try at some point. If he finds success and proves himself as a top-six winger, the Oilers will qualify him at his current salary of $3 million for sure.
But what if he doesn’t? What if, by the end of the Oilers 2020 playoffs, the Athanasiou-McDavid duo is a dud?
Holland needs some wiggle room to find the right free agent winger for his top line — assuming he can not find that player in trade. It will be a good summer to have some free agent dollars available, as many teams will be tapped out. What if you simply let Athanasiou walk and considered the two second-rounders the price to be paid for the $3 million in cap space?
That is clearly not the preferred option, and one that Athanasiou’s play will provide the answer for.