2022 NHL playoff preview: Oilers vs. Kings
At various times this season, it felt like both the Oilers and Kings might not even get to this point.
The Kings started the year as playoff long shots despite a strong offseason and they dealt with plenty of injuries along the way. The Oilers started strong, but floundered near the middle of the season. But after a season filled with ups and downs, they’re both here. The Kings rallied after losing their best defender to injury, while the Oilers came alive down the stretch after a change behind the bench.
Edmonton has looked like a well-oiled machine since the coaching change, a team that looks among the best in the West. Los Angeles’ turn to be that will come one day with the young core the team has amassed, but that day is likely not this year.
The Kings are more than just happy to be here, but they still enter this series as heavy underdogs.
A near 70-30 split in series probability is far from the most lopsided series of the first round. But the Oilers still enter this series as the decided favorite — something that the relative “heaviness” of each team doesn’t change.
The most likely outcome here is an Oilers win in five games, though any Oilers result is more probable than any Kings win. That doesn’t mean the Kings can’t win this series — it’s just that it’s not very likely.
That’s especially true when looking at how the two teams closed out the season. Recency is not something that’s reflected in the odds listed above, but if you like a team that’s coming in hot, the Oilers are it.
The Oilers likely aren’t as dominant as those numbers, but they likely aren’t as average as their full season numbers, either. Regardless, it’s still a team that has a pretty substantial edge over the Kings across the board.
Edmonton’s edge stems from its play since the coaching change. Before that, things were pretty bleak for the Oilers. There were troubles in net, on defense and not enough offensive contributions below their top players.
At five-on-five, the Oilers went from an average team offensively to one that can create higher quality chances on a more consistent basis under Jay Woodcroft. It would help to have better shooting luck; over the last month, it’s slipped a bit relative to the rest of the league. If that regresses closer to their average, then they should be in better shape.
With some strategic changes back in their own zone, the Oilers have done a better job to limit shot volume against — though that’s slipped over the last month, too. This group is still far from perfect, but better play in front of the crease seems to have helped elevate their play in goal.
If that current trend holds up for Edmonton, it makes for a favorable matchup against a team with serious finishing woes. Los Angeles is a fine team at creating offense from a quality and quantity standpoint, but the results are much further behind. Based on the quality of their shots, the Kings are expected to be closer to 178 goals this season, which would put them in the upper half of the league. In reality, they’re quite a bit lower at 153 goals scored — a product of a good system that lacks talent.
Team defense is a strength of the Kings, though. While they’ve been conceding more shots over the last month than they did throughout the season as a whole, there’s been an effort to limit quality chances against. Their goaltenders just have to respond well to that workload. For the year, the goaltending has been average, but that’s taken a nosedive down the stretch. For the Kings to have a shot, they need both their finishing and goaltending talent to click at the same time. Having neither would likely mean an early exit.
The special teams battle heavily favors Edmonton, too. The power play isn’t back at the heights it was to open the season, but it’s still effective. The likes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl running that unit against a penalty kill that ranks in the bottom half of the league in both expected and actual goals against is a legitimate concern for Los Angeles.
The Kings struggle to finish on the man advantage, too, even though they’ve trended in the right direction below the surface. Again, talent is an issue. Despite some improvements in their shorthanded play, the Oilers aren’t perfect in their own zone — strong goaltending of late has helped mask it. There’s a chance that the underdog can try to push the pace here, especially if Edmonton’s play in net doesn’t hold up. But the odds are rightfully against them here. There’s just a bit too much to overcome on the talent side.
The biggest reason the Oilers are so heavily favored in this series is because they have McDavid and Draisaitl, and the Kings do not. Players three-to-20 are relatively close, but having two of the best players in the world tips the scales in Edmonton’s favor. In hockey, it’s difficult for one player to dictate the outcome of a single game on his own, but there are exceptions to that rule. McDavid is one of those exceptions and Draisaitl isn’t far off.
McDavid is one of two players projected to provide over six wins of value and it comes from his otherworldly ability to influence offense. Over the last five seasons, he has a nearly 100-point lead over the next best non-Oiler in scoring, having won the scoring title in three of those five seasons. That he did it this year despite being terribly unlucky in terms of his on-ice shooting percentage at five-on-five is a testament to his gifts.
What’s made McDavid extra special over the last two seasons is his attention to detail defensively. Prior to the 2020-21 season, McDavid’s defense was a major concern that held back his total value. It’s no coincidence that his best offensive seasons have followed as McDavid became a much more complete player. His defense is still only average, but that’s a huge step up and makes his offensive game more impactful. Relative to teammates, the only player with a bigger impact on expected goals over the last two years than McDavid is his frequent linemate Jesse Puljujarvi. Combine that with the ability to score 130 points and you’ve got a frightening weapon to contain.
That the Oilers also have Draisaitl makes them even scarier, especially now that the two are on different lines. Draisaitl isn’t the same play-driving presence as McDavid, mostly due to his poor defensive ability, but on the second line he doesn’t really need to be in order to bring in huge value thanks to his offensive ability. It’s extremely rare to have a weapon of Draisaitl’s caliber leading the second line, but the Oilers amassing capable forward depth over the last few years has offered them the luxury to do just that. There are simply not many people who can score or pass at Draisaitl’s rate. He’s a dual threat.
While McDavid and Draisaitl do operate on separate lines to spread the wealth, there will be plenty of times where the duo will be put together to overload Los Angeles’ defense. It’s tough to see the Kings being able to handle that. With those two, the star power edge is handsomely in Edmonton’s favor.
With Drew Doughty out for the rest of the year, the Kings are missing the one player with elite potential. While the addition of Phillip Danault has eased Anze Kopitar’s workload and helped him bounce back, he isn’t at the elite level he once was. The advantage Los Angeles does have with those two is defensive strength down the middle. While McDavid and Draisaitl may be more valuable, Kopitar and Danault have the ability to tip the scales with their collective defensive presence — and they’re not exactly offensive slouches either.
In years past, Danault’s five-on-five offensive impact wasn’t too notable, but his elite defensive impact was the highlight of his game. That absolutely shined in the Canadiens’ unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final — shutting down Auston Matthews in Round 1 and Mark Stone in the semifinal. That’s what McDavid and Draisaitl face in this round. And as much as they can try to control the matchup at home, the presence of Kopitar makes that challenging. It’s a matchup the Oilers duo should win due to their explosive offense (McDavid outscores both of them combined), but Danault and Kopitar have a sublime way of nullifying that. It won’t be easy.
Kopitar’s been in the Selke conversation for years, and sometimes that two-way reputation has gotten overhyped. Last year the offensive impact was still there, but his play in his own zone slipped. This year, though, that reputation has been well-earned. It may have to do with Danault alleviating some of the pressures of that shutdown role, but it seems to have revitalized his game. This season Kopitar limited opponents’ expected goal generation almost 8 percent more than an average player would after accounting for zone starts, coaching impact and competition faced.
Aside from the two center matchups, the rest of the forward depth is also an advantage for Edmonton, though obviously not to the same degree. That starts with the Oilers having four other forwards who are bona fide top six talents, three of which are top line calibre.
Two of them, Evander Kane and Puljujarvi, flank McDavid and while that’s obviously a cushy spot to be, the two are perfect fits next to McDavid.
Though Kane came to the Oilers with a lot of off-ice baggage, he’s delivered even more than expected on the ice playing at a 3.3-win pace this season. Scoring 22 goals and 39 points in 42 games will do that, a solid full-season pace of 43 goals and 76 points. He essentially picked up right where he left off with the Sharks. Pulujujarvi is the worker bee on the line and his work down low is incredible. He may not produce a lot but he is quickly becoming one of the game’s best play-drivers — McDavid’s expected goal numbers are always stronger with Puljujarvi next to him. Add Kane’s sniping ability to that along with McDavid’s out-of-this-world playmaking and the Oilers have an essentially perfect top line. It’s no surprise the trio has found such chemistry together and in 149 minutes together the line has earned some absurd numbers: a 62 percent expected goals rate while outscoring opponents 9-1.
The addition of Kane and the emergence of Puljujarvi have allowed the team’s two other strong support players to move into more suitable roles. Last summer’s big free-agent splash, Zach Hyman, didn’t quite show the finish necessary to play with McDavid, but he brings much-needed play-driving ability to the Draisaitl line. He’s a high-end grinder and has shown to bring out the best in Draisaitl at five-on-five through that lens. The duo has a 54 percent expected goals rate together and has worked well with Kailer Yamamoto.
That’s a big step up from Draisaitl with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a pair that hasn’t worked well this year. It has a solid history of success, but on a contending roster, Nugent-Hopkins is likely better slated anchoring the third line. His presence there gives the Oilers a 1-2-3 punch down the middle that no other team in the league can match, giving the Oilers a strong checking line. Warren Foegele and Derek Ryan are solid options for that role and the trio have put together some inspiring numbers together. That gives the Oilers a seriously deep top nine with very few holes.
The Kings have their own good pieces throughout, just not on Edmonton’s level.
Alongside Kopitar, there’s Adrian Kempe and Andreas Athanasiou. Kopitar is the two-way presence and playmaker that makes it all click. Kempe tends to be the puck carrier and shooter, and he’s hit career highs this season.
The wild card of that trio is Athanasiou. He’s a pure shooter who is all offense all the time, so as long as Kopitar can mitigate any damage defensively, they should be fine. At his best, Athanasiou can add some pop with his speedy skating and ability to separate himself from defenders rushing up the ice. But there’s always a big if with his high-risk, high-reward play. So far, the line has looked really strong together in limited minutes.
The strength of the Kings is that they’re no longer a one-line team. The additions of Danault and Viktor Arvidsson, along with the progression of Trevor Moore’s game have changed that.
Arvidsson’s play was declining in Nashville due to injuries, but he’s back to his volume-shooting, net-front style with the Kings. Danault is in the best offensive position he’s had in years, and it’s clearly working for him. At five-on-five, he’s already doubled his prior high in goals with 24, and was one shy of a career high in points. Unlike his linemate, he’s not a volume shooter; he does, however, concentrate his shots to the quality areas. He’s a decent playmaker, too.
There’s no pure puck-carrier on this line, it’s a collective effort. Arvidsson and Danault can enter with possession, while Moore has one of the highest rates of uncontrolled entries in the league. The two-way instincts of both Danault and Moore help hold the puck in the zone to sustain offensive pressure. That’s led to the trio earning 59 percent of the expected goals.
The second line’s output might be greater than the sum of their parts, but that doesn’t change that there isn’t an elite player in that group to kick them up a notch while the Oilers have Draisaitl on their second line. The Kings line may be able to control the run of play, but Draisaitl’s game-breaking ability will be really difficult to stop.
Further down the lineup, Alex Iafallo moving down from the first could add some depth. Blake Lizotte’s forechecking pressure could also prove useful if it disrupts the Oilers from getting to work in the offensive zone.
Things are more evenly matched elsewhere where both teams get eight wins of value from their back end and goaltending. Even without Doughty, the Kings carry the slightest edge with their blue line.
Given the pieces, it’s going to be how this group works together to limit some of the offensive skill they’re about to face. A team-wide strength of their defensemen is how they defend the blue line. They do their best to limit carry-ins and tend not to allow many entries against that lead to scoring chances — though that’s easier said than done against McDavid and Draisaitl.
At the top, there’s the safe and dependable veteran presence of Alex Edler paired with Matt Roy who can be counted on for his shot. With this duo on the ice together, the Kings are a much stronger team at both ends of the ice. Their expected goal suppression is 19 percent stronger than league average with very few chances trickling through the blue paint. Maintaining that level of play against the Oilers is going to be crucial.
The second pair currently houses Sean Durzi and Mikey Anderson, with Durzi stepping up while the Kings dealt with injuries. He can gain possession and bring the puck out of his own zone, but there is an element of risk to some of those plays. That should pair well with Anderson, who is a safer outlet with the puck. The question is how he’ll manage after a lengthy absence and without his mainstay partner in Doughty.
Jordan Spence and Olli Maatta make for a fine pair to round out the group. Spence is an effective puck mover; he can retrieve the puck in his own zone and carry it out himself to spark plays.
Edmonton’s blue line is the team’s biggest weakness, though it’s on par with what the Kings have without Doughty; it isn’t a high bar, but also not a disaster, either.
The biggest thing going for the Oilers is the massive step Evan Bouchard took this season. He’s a very strong puck-moving defender which fits well with the team’s forward group and that resulted in some strong offensive numbers. No Oilers defender had a higher expected goals for rate than Bouchard’s 3.21 this season, a mark that ranked seventh leaguewide. Defensively, there’s still a lot of work to be done here, but Bouchard’s ability to drive offense makes him a decent top pairing option. That’s not something the Oilers have had much of over the years.
Darnell Nurse, if he’s healthy, gives the team a second such option and he’s looked a lot better this season unshackled from Tyson Barrie. His 54 percent expected goals rate was an improvement from last season, a steady increase in each of the last three years. That comes from both sides of the puck where his expected goals for rate and expected goals against rate were both his best marks since becoming the team’s top defender. He played at a 1.8-win pace this season — enough to be considered a solid No. 1 option. He’s starting to look more and more like the real deal.
After the top pair, it gets a bit sketchy. Keith and Cody Ceci isn’t the disastrous second pair many feared, but it’s still weak as fair as second pairs go. Ceci has been rather serviceable defensively, but remains weak offensively. Keith’s numbers are inflated from his time with McDavid.
It makes you wonder what the best mix is for the team’s defensive pairings and that’s where analytics darling Brett Kulak steps in. As expected, he’s thrived in a third pair role and since the trade deadline leads all Oilers defenders with a 60 percent expected goals rate. Can he do it higher in the lineup? He has some experience there in his days in Montreal, but that was with Jeff Petry. It’s possible he could be the answer in the top four, but that would be a difficult thing to test at this juncture of the season. At the very least, he’s getting the most out of Barrie at five-on-five which is a huge bonus in and of itself.
The defense is mostly a wash overall and the same goes for the goalies, which may feature the most fun narrative arc of the matchup. Yes, the center matchups are exciting, but so too is the battle in net between two talented veterans that refuse to go quietly into the good night: Mike Smith and Jonathan Quick.
The last time the two met in the playoffs was in 2012, a time when both goalies were at their absolute peaks. Neither is that anymore, but that they’re still this strong at their age is extremely commendable.
Smith started slowly coming back from injury, but he’s picked it up over the last couple months. If that’s the kind of goaltending Edmonton can expect in the playoffs, the Oilers might be a tougher out than many expect. For the season Smith ranks 18th in the league with 7.8 goals saved above expected, but that number dulls how hot he’s been of late. Over his last 15 games, Smith has a .936 and has saved 15.7 goals above expected — tops in the league.
On the flip side, Quick started the season out very strong, jumping out as the starter ahead of Cal Petersen. His play trended down midway through the season causing Petersen to steal the net for a bit. He’s back in the starter’s crease now with 12 goals above expected in 46 games, which ranks ninth in the league, much of that was built in the first half. He needs to find a way to regain that form.
The Kings are obviously hoping that’s the Quick they’re going to see in the playoffs — the same one they’ve been able to lean on through all of their deep runs. In the 2012, 2013 and 2014 postseason, he saved more goals than expected and was often one of their best players. But he’s had very little playoff experience since.
In the three years the Kings didn’t make it, Quick’s play did contribute to it — especially in 2018-19. This was his best regular season since 2017-18, so that’s already a step in the right direction. Peak performance is a lot to ask for at this phase in his career, but his full-season numbers are an encouraging sign. But there’s rightfully going to be uncertainty. And while Petersen can handle more than a backup’s workload if needed, his performance this season has kept him out of the starter’s net.
The Bottom Line
This is Edmonton’s series to lose and one where McDavid has an opportunity to start shaping his playoff legacy. His postseason resume to date hasn’t been spectacular yet, but his time will come. This season looks like a great place to start with how the team has fared under Woodcroft. This is the best the Oilers have looked without McDavid on the ice through his entire career and the Kings present a winnable matchup toward building up that resume.
But a winnable matchup as a heavy favorite is far from a guarantee in this league, especially over the last several seasons which have been particularly unpredictable. The Kings have the tools to make life difficult for McDavid and company, namely Danault and Kopitar. It will take a full team effort to overcome the star power disadvantage here, but it’s one this Kings team looks to be capable of. They’ve been doubted all year and made it this far for a reason. Thank a strong system that’s allowed the team to be on the right side of the puck.
Having the puck more only does so much when there’s such a wide talent disparity. That’s where the Kings have struggled most this season and where Edmonton presents a challenging matchup. A playoff series against a far superior team with far superior players might be too much to overcome for Los Angeles.
Data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz, Hockey Stat Cards and NHL
(Photo: Harry How / Getty Images)