2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Can the NHL’s reigning Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck shut down the unstoppable Hart favorite Connor McDavid and the high-powered Edmonton Oilers? (Perry Nelson-USA Today Sports)

2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 Preview: Oilers vs. Jets

Welcome to the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, unlike any playoffs seen before. This year’s tournament is different than the 2020 tournament, as the realigned divisions, eliminated wild cards and conference structures, and the 56-game pandemic-shortened season produced a uniquely structured tournament. The atmosphere may not be the same as in previous years, but at least some fans will get to experience this year’s tournament in person. Despite all the adversity that the hockey world has faced this season, the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs will surely be a tournament to remember.

Speaking of things to remember — Connor McDavid’s dominant 2021 campaign. McDavid hit the 100 point mark in just 53 games, finishing with 104 on the year. That’s 21 more than the next highest player (his teammate Leon Draisaitl) and 35 more than the next highest non-Oiler (Brad Marchand, 69). That duo has dominated for the Oilers the last few years. And the team around them is finally good enough to bring Edmonton back into the playoffs. The Oilers have a quality group this year, coming together for an excellent campaign in 2021. They’re an incredibly dynamic team with outstanding special teams, and their biggest question mark (goaltending) has been firmly answered all season.

Those pieces and more have carried the club to second in the North Division and home-ice in the first round. Awaiting them is a battered Winnipeg Jets club that is getting cold at the worst time. The Jets were one of the biggest surprises of the early stages of the season, looking like a legitimate threat to Toronto for first in the North. Instead, they were nearly jumped by a Montréal squad stuck in quicksand down the stretch. Injuries, poor underlying numbers, and a passive trade deadline have lowered Winnipeg’s threat level significantly heading into the playoffs. But no one is ready to write off a team with Connor Hellebuyck between the pipes. So which hardware-winning Connor will come out on top?

#2 Edmonton Oilers (35-19-2) vs. Winnipeg Jets (30-23-3)

Recent History: This iteration of the Jets (the previous Atlanta Thrashers) has never played the Oilers in a playoff series. The previous incarnation (the current Arizona Coyotes) was steamrolled by Edmonton’s mid-80s dynasty, losing six playoff series to the Oilers between 1983 and 1990. Each of Edmonton’s five Cup wins involved a series win over Winnipeg. Could they make it six for six?

The Last Time Here: Edmonton was a stunning early out in the bubble last year (which was at their home rink), losing to #12 seed Chicago 3-1 in the qualifier round. Their only true playoff appearance since a surprise run to the Final in 2006 was a second-round exit to Anaheim in 2017 (they beat San Jose in 6 in Round 1). Winnipeg also went down in the qualifier round 3-1, losing Mark Scheifele to injury and the series to the Flames. The year before, they went 0-3 on home-ice and lost in six to the eventual champion St. Louis Blues.

Season Series: Edmonton had a field day whenever they faced Winnipeg this year, taking seven of nine matchups. The Oilers scored 34 goals in those meetings, and Connor McDavid put up a gaudy 22 points. Winnipeg’s leading scorer against the Oilers, Nikolaj Ehlers, is out for the series with an injury. Ouch (literally and figuratively).

Edmonton Wins Because: Your stars matter more than ever in the playoffs, and oh boy, do the Oilers have some stars. McDavid’s season has received plenty of coverage, and it deserves every bit of it. McDavid has been the best player in the league for a while, but he put himself on a whole different level this year. He had more 3+ point games (18) than 0 point games (10). He tallied at least one point in every meeting against the Jets this year. McDavid’s season wasn’t just great; it was one of the best all-time. There are very few non-goalies who can win a playoff series all by themselves. Connor McDavid is one of those players.

The good news is he doesn’t have to, and it’s not entirely because he has Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on his team. Draisaitl is still unreal and the fact that the Oilers can play last year’s and (almost certainly) this year’s Hart winner on separate lines is unbelievable. Draisaitl is scoring at nearly an identical rate as he did in last year’s MVP season. Of course, they are together on the power-play, which the Oilers unsurprisingly rank 1st in the league on. Nugent-Hopkins, a 1st overall pick himself, isn’t on their level but is a solid player in his own right. His numbers have come down a little bit this season, but his versatility and skill make him an incredible asset. The pending UFA should get a nice payday in the summer, and I expect the Oilers to make a big effort to keep him around.

Of course, this is just the second playoff appearance for those three because of the other players the Oilers have had. Edmonton’s forward depth is far from perfect, but it has improved over years prior. If the Oilers are going to have a deep run, they need a lot more from the 2017 1st rounder Kailer Yamamoto. He was a revelation playing mostly with Draisaitl last year, scoring at nearly a point-per-game in the regular season. This year, Yamamoto only has 21 points despite spending about 77% of his 5-on-5 minutes with Draisaitl. Smaller players like Yamamoto often struggle in the playoffs; see Johnny Gaudreau (8 goals in 30 career playoff games) and Travis Konecny (1 goal in 23) as examples. Yamamoto put up a goose egg in the qualifier round last year; that type of performance won’t cut it in 2021.

If you had told someone in October 2019 Edmonton’s leading goal scorer among non-McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins would be Jesse Puljujärvi this year, they’d have laughed. It seemed like the Peter Chiarelli had ruined his Oilers career to the point of no return. He struggled to produce, was often sent to the AHL, and spent all of 2019-20 overseas while asking for a trade. New GM Ken Holland was able to coax him back to North America, and he’s put up a respectable 15 goals and 25 points. For reference, Puljujärvi scored 17 goals in 139 career games over his first three seasons. Puljujärvi finished strong, scoring 12 points in Edmonton’s last 19 contests. Finding secondary scoring will be paramount for Edmonton to make a deep run. And Puljujärvi’s as likely a source as any.

Other than those two, Edmonton’s remaining forwards once again leave quite a bit to be desired. It’s a good thing Kyle Turris was a low-risk addition because the rewards have also been low. James Neal has only played in 28 games. Tyler Ennis hasn’t been able to fit in offensively. The likes of players like Alex Chiasson and Josh Archibald have produced about as much as you’d expect: not much. Zack Kassian’s scoring numbers also dipped, and he’s currently on LTIR. None of their depth forwards (except Puljujärvi) with more than 10 games played are above 50% in Corsi OR Expected Goals. That isn’t a recipe for success, although if McDavid and Draisaitl can mask this deficiency when operating at peak powers.

To be fair, the Oilers have gotten quite a bit of offensive production from their top defensive pair. Edmonton is the only team in the league this year with two of their top four scorers playing on the back-end. Darnell Nurse has long been a solid contributor for the Oilers on defense, and he had an excellent year that could garner some Norris votes.

But new-comer Tyson Barrie has picked up the slack left by Oskar Klefbom’s season-ending shoulder surgery. Barrie isn’t as good all-around as Klefbom or Nurse, but he’s a gifted offensive defenseman who scored 48 points, 23 of which came on the power-play. Those numbers rank 1st and tied for 2nd among NHL defensemen, by the way. Yes, a fair portion of that is merely a benefit of playing with McDavid on PP1. But Barrie has definitely improved on a brutal 2019-20 season where he could never get settled with the Maple Leafs. The exact opposite has played out in Edmonton.

That offensive does come at a cost; the duo surrendered 2.72 expected goals per 60 at 5-on-5, the third-highest mark of any NHL defensive pair (min. 300 minutes). They were Edmonton’s only defensive pair to meet that threshold (66 pairings did, an average of about two per team); their defense was in flux all year, with nine pairings playing at least 100 minutes together. For reference, Winnipeg only had five pairings meet that threshold despite acquiring defender Jordie Benn at the deadline.

The next highest pairing in terms of ice-time that didn’t involve Nurse was Kris Russell and Adam Larsson, which was an unmitigated disaster. Pairing two defensive defensemen rarely works out, and this duo was no exception (43.29% Corsi, 43.88% xG). A Russell injury has forced them apart, and when he returns, they shouldn’t be reunited. Youngsters Caleb Jones and Ethan Bear make up a decent third-pair, albeit one with a comically low 25% actual goal differential thanks to an incredibly low 3.66% on-ice shooting percentage. That’s almost Taylor Hall in Buffalo bad, and the third-lowest among all d-pairs with at least 200 5-on-5 minutes together.

Winnipeg Wins Because: Hockey is a weird sport, and the Jets have an incredible goaltender. I don’t what else you want me to say. Since the April 12 trade deadline, Winnipeg holds a record of just 5-10-0; only one team (San Jose) has been worse in that span. The Jets are colder than a Winnipeg winter right now. This situation isn’t totally hopeless, of course. But it’s going to be a tall order for the Jets to make any sort of run as currently constructed.

Over the season’s last month, Connor Hellebuyck has merely produced a pedestrian .900 save percentage. If he’s not on his A-game, Winnipeg is likely going to be swept. Now, it’s pretty likely Hellebuyck will be significantly better in this series. But it’s problematic to have so much of your hopes resting on one player, even one as good as the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. The Jets haven’t been the same team since losing Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and Ben Chiarot in the 2019 offseason. Hellebuyck is a fire blanket covering a lot of opposing team’s sparks and small flames (including the ones from Calgary). But it’s hard to bank on any goaltender putting out a raging inferno like the Jets’ defense. Although Hellebuyck is as capable of doing so as anyone.

Josh Morrissey is the only key defender from their 2018 Western Conference Final run still around. And he’s regressed quite a bit since then, in large part due to playing lots of difficult minutes without a true top-pair caliber partner. Dylan DeMelo is decent, but he’s not a true #2 defender. It’s saying something that DeMelo’s numbers were considerably better on the 2019-20 Senators than they’ve been in a season and a half in Winnipeg.

The rest of Winnipeg’s defense (Derek Forbort, Neal Pionk, Logan Stanley, and deadline pickup Jordie Benn) is uninspiring at best. Pionk at least produces a lot of points (32, to be specific). And Stanley’s 6’7” frame could make him effective in the playoffs. But this unit is a far cry from the stacked defenses of Winnipeg’s 2018 and 2019 playoff squads. Things look a bit more promising if Paul Maurice separates Tucker Poolman from Morrissey at all costs; the duo registered a disastrous 44.19% Expected Goals together. But again, even with optimal pairings, we’re talking about a group that’s probably a tick below average at best.

The Jets are a below-average 5-on-5 team, managing a mere 48.51% Corsi and 46.67% Expected Goals (score and venue adjusted). Their lack of defense, both in terms of their blue-line and defensive play from their best forwards (looking at you, Blake Wheeler) is a major concern. Overall, the Jets allowed 2.4 expected goals per 60 at 5-on-5 (score and venue adjusted), 25th in the NHL. It’s why McDavid scored as many points against the Jets as he did against Toronto and Montréal, the other two North Division playoff teams, combined. Hellebuyck is capable of bailing them out a lot of nights; that’s why the team finished 10th in goals against per game, just .02 ahead of Edmonton. But Kevin Cheveldayoff’s decision to play it safe at the deadline will likely haunt them in this series.

Winnipeg’s odds took a big hit late in the season with the loss of Nikolaj Ehlers. He’d long been the unsung hero of Winnipeg’s offense behind Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, and (formerly) Patrik Laine. This year, he scored at just under a point-per-game pace (46 points in 47 games). More significantly, he’s the only Winnipeg forward to be above break-even (50%) in Corsi and Expected Goals. Pierre-Luc Dubois and Matthieu Perreault slightly cleared 50% in Corsi and Expected Goals, respectively, but were below break-even in the other category. Losing him is a devastating blow to their chances.

If the Jets are somehow going to pull off the upset, they’ll need a goal bonanza from their stars. Scheifele, Wheeler, and Connor ranked 1-2-4 (with Ehlers at 3) in scoring. Scheifele in particular was a force of nature in their 2018 run, finishing with 14 goals, more than anyone in the playoffs not named Alex Ovechkin, who played in seven more games. He also led the club with 62 points this year, a figure that also ranks fifth in the North Division. They’ll need more of that production in this series. Connor and Wheeler are also outstanding offensive forces, even if they give back a lot of what they produce in the defensive zone. I know this sounds like a broken record, but they’ll need Hellebuyck to erase their mistakes and capitalize on whatever chances they do generate to have any shot at advancing.

To end with some positives, Andrew Copp’s breakout year combined with a nice season from Adam Lowry, and decent second-stint in Winnipeg for Paul Stastny is probably enough to give Winnipeg the edge in forward depth. The Jets also have good special teams (6th PP, 15th PK) and finished tied for seventh in penalty differential. The problem is that while those are all good marks, Edmonton actually bests them in each of those categories. So much for truly ending with a positive, then.

Players to Watch:

EDM: G Mike Smith – Despite their aforementioned defensive short-comings, the Oilers finished twelfth in goals against per game at 2.75, a very respectable mark. Like Winnipeg, the biggest reason for that is goaltending. Unlike Winnipeg, that wasn’t expected. Mikko Koskinen was supposed to be a mediocre starter, and the decision to bring back the aging Mike Smith was supposed to bite them in the rear-end. After all, Smith, now 39, ranked 53rd out of 63 goalies with a .900 save percentage combined between 2018-19 and 2019-20. So naturally, he put up a career-high .923 mark this season, tied for 7th in the NHL (min. 15 games). Goaltending, man. It’s weird.

Now, can Smith keep that up in the playoffs? We’ll have to wait and see. It is worth noting that Smith’s career playoff save percentage (.934) is much better than his regular-season mark (.912). In fact, it’s the best among any active goalie with at least 10 playoff appearances. It’s a smaller sample size, obviously (25 games compared to 642, in Smith’s case). But his track record shows he’s capable of handling the bright lights. Does Smith have a Cup run in-store in one of his final years in the NHL? It’s certainly much more likely he does than it was four months ago.

WPG: C Pierre-Luc Dubois – As I said, Winnipeg’s best players will need to produce a bundle of points if they hope to advance. That includes Dubois, who has not been the dynamic offensive weapon the Jets hoped they were getting to replace the disgruntled Laine. Dubois has 20 points in 41 games as a Jet, and he’s still searching for his optimal lineup spot. Did I mention he ends the regular season on a nine-game pointless streak? The silver lining is Dubois was excellent in last year’s playoffs, scoring 10 points in as many games. That includes a hat-trick/OT winner against Toronto in the qualifier round. If that Dubois shows up to this series, the Jets become a much tougher team to shut down.

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The Pick: This is probably the easiest of the two-versus-three seed match-ups to predict. Edmonton may be flawed, but Winnipeg can’t match their star-power up-front. Mike Smith’s career year has mostly rendered the advantage Connor Hellebuyck brings moot. And while the Oilers have some problems defensively, their group isn’t as poor as Winnipeg’s has been the last two seasons. Edmonton just seems to do everything the Jets try to do a bit better; star forwards, excellent goaltending, productive special teams, you name it. Add in that Winnipeg’s 3-7-0 mark in their last 10 is tied with Buffalo for second-worst in the league, and it’s that much easier. I’ll actually be kind to the Jets in my prediction, mainly because of Hellebuyck. Oilers in 6.

Oddly Specific Prediction: This is an idea I also borrow from one of the best hockey writers, The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe (aka Down Goes Brown). The idea is very self-explanatory: make a very specific and semi-random prediction for each series. The idea is “stolen”; the predictions themselves are not. The Jets (correctly) passed on Puljujärvi at #2 overall in the 2016 draft; the Oilers selected him two picks later. He’ll come back to haunt them in this series, scoring at least .5 goals per game (so for example, if the series goes 6 as I predict, he’ll score at least 3).

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5, Score and Venue Adjusted unless otherwise stated and are via Natural Stat Trick