Phase 3 Training Camp Preview: Oilers’ biggest question lies in net

Gene Principe checks in with Sportsnet.ca's Mark Spector to preview the Oilers return to the ice. How will Connor McDavid & Leon Draisaitl respond following the extended break?

EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers only fell into the qualifying round due to points percentage. They were the fourth place team in the West, and would not have fallen behind Dallas had they not lost that fateful game to Winnipeg on March 11 that left them as the fifth seed when play begins on Aug. 1.

One of the NHL’s best offensive clubs, Edmonton gets a Chicago Blackhawks team in their play-in series that gives up among the most chances in the league. Defence is not the Blackhawks’ strength, while offence is Edmonton’s forte.

We know how things can change in the playoffs — especially this season. But from 30,000 feet, as Edmonton opens its training camp at Rogers Place July 13, they have to be thinking that their best effort will be better than what 12th place Chicago can bring.

Regular season record: 37-25-9 (5th in West by points percentage)
Goals for: 225 (T-11th in NHL)
Goals against: 217 (T-17th in NHL)
Leading goal scorer: Leon Draisaitl (43)
Leading point scorer: Leon Draisaitl (110)

Livestream the Oilers in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, plus every game of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Sportsnet NOW.

Injury updates

Mike Green, D: Had an MCL injury at the pause, but is expected to be 100 per cent.

Joakim Nygard, LW: Has fully recovered from hand surgery.

Player To Watch

For much of the season, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins helped Leon Draisaitl to an NHL scoring title, as the longest serving Edmonton Oiler stepped away from his role as a centreman to play left wing on Draisaitl’s line. The alignment allowed head coach Dave Tippett to play Draisaitl and McDavid as his No. 1 and 2 centremen, a key advancement in transforming the Oilers from a lottery club to a playoff threat out West.

But as the season wore down, and the Oilers struggled to find enough top-six wingers to keep both its superstars happy and productive, Tippett moved Nugent-Hopkins up to McDavid’s flank. The Nugent-Hopkins-McDavid-Zack Kassian line had eight points apiece over the final six games, as the trio had great balance, while Draisaitl played with Kailer Yamamoto and Tyler Ennis.

Clearly, the third most skilled player is Nugent-Hopkins. Which centre gets to play with him for the bulk of the game?

That will be a key decision for Tippett to make.

One interesting stat

113.9 per cent: That number — the combined efficiency of the Oilers’ power play and penalty killing units posted this season — is the second highest combined special teams number ever posted by an NHL team. Edmonton had the league’s best power play, at 29.5 per cent, and the second best penalty kill, at 84.4 per cent.

Playoff games are won by a solid power play, and if you consistently win both ends of the special teams spectrum, you’ll win four out of seven almost every time. Edmonton’s regular season formula goes something like this: A goal by McDavid’s line, a goal by Draisaitl’s line, a goal from the bottom-six or defence and a goal from the power play. And in over 60 per cent of their games, they did not allow a power play goal against when playing four against five.

If you can score three and eliminate the opposition’s power play, you’ll usually win. Score four every night, and it’s on to the next round.

Possible line combinations

Forwards:

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Connor McDavid – Zack Kassian

Tyler Ennis – Leon Draisaitl – Kailer Yamamoto

James NealJujhar KhairaAlex Chiasson

Andreas AthanasiouRiley SheahanJosh Archibald

Defence:

Oscar KlefbomAdam Larsson

Darnell Nurse – Ethan Bear

Kris RussellMatt Benning

Goaltending:

Mike Smith

Mikko Koskinen

The biggest question facing the Oilers is…

Goaltending.

Sure, the NHL is trending toward co-starters. Two goalies who share the season schedule, give or take a handful of starts, has become a modern solution to travel, game density, and a preference for having a fresh athlete manning the most important position in hockey.

To that end, Mike Smith led Mikko Koskinen in games played (39 to 38), in starts (37 to 34) and in wins (19 to 18), while Koskinen’s edge in goals against (2.75 to 2.95) and save percentage (.917 to .902) belie the fact that Koskinen can be a productive NHL netminder if not over-used.

We know that head coach Dave Tippett leans toward Smith, due to their history together and the fact that Smith’s puck-handling ability makes a tangible difference in how Edmonton exits its zone and how the opponent forechecks. But Smith is 38. He is simply not going to be the horse you ride through multiple rounds of playoff hockey.

And why would you?

The Oilers resided at or near the top of the Pacific for most of a season because Tippett had an uncanny ability to know when it was time to ride one of his ‘tenders, and when it was time to make a change. Only eight goalies in the NHL played in 35 games and had a GAA of 2.75 or better and a save percentage higher than .916. Koskinen was one of those.

The good news for Edmonton is that they have two goalies who have shown they can carry the ball. The bad news? History tells us they both have to be on top of their game, because Edmonton requires two goalies to win long-term.

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