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2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs

The L.A. Kings are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2018. But can they shut down Connor McDavid and Co. without their top defenseman Drew Doughty? (Andy Devlin/Getty Images)

2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 Preview: Oilers vs. Kings

The L.A. Kings are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2018. But can they shut down Connor McDavid and Co. without their top defenseman Drew Doughty? (Andy Devlin/Getty Images)

2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 Preview: Oilers vs. Kings

Last year’s Oilers-Jets series had to be one of the most frustrating playoff series in recent memory, especially for Edmonton. The Oilers entered the series as favorites with a much stronger 5-on-5 track record. They had a red-hot Mike Smith in goal. And, oh yeah, also owned the league’s first and second leading scorers. Yet not only could they not eliminate the Jets, they couldn’t even win a game against them. All four were decided by one goal. Three games went to overtime, with the series-clincher needing nearly six periods of hockey to decide it. Connor McDavid was not just held off the scoreboard, but held by nearly every part of his body. Somehow, the league’s most dynamic, unstoppable player didn’t draw a single penalty all series. And the Oilers couldn’t push through as a result.

The Oilers were aggressive last offseason in upping their physicality and experience to try and break through, giving McDavid and Leon Draisaitl enough support to make the first truly deep playoff run of their careers. The Los Angeles Kings made a few moves, too. But their summer 2021 was more under the radar, spent hoping their wave of young talent would ripen in time to push back into the playoff picture while franchise faces Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick remained in L.A. That’s sort of happened. Although as the headline spoils, they’ve cleared the qualification hurdle that stymied them each of the prior four seasons. McDavid and friends are Round 1 favorites yet again. But do the Kings have what it takes to force them into an early exit for the third straight year?

Edmonton Oilers (49-27-6, No. 2 Pacific) vs. Los Angeles Kings (44-27-11, No. 3 Pacific)

Recent History: Does 30 years count as recent? After meeting seven times in 11 years, the Oilers and Kings have been on a playoff hiatus since 1992. In fact, since that last meeting, the Oilers and Kings have only made the playoffs in the same year three times, and not once since 2001.

The Last Time Here: See above for Edmonton, a far-too-early-exit to the Jets even though the Oilers had a higher expected goals share than any team in Round 1 expect for Colorado last year. It’s been a bit longer here for the Kings; their last playoff trip came back in 2018, and it also ended in a stunning sweep, theirs at the hands of the infamous expansion year Vegas Golden Knights. L.A. managed just four goals in the series. The Kings haven’t won a playoff game since 2016, nor have they won a playoff game in regulation or a series since the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. Their last playoff trip (2016) ended in just five games at the hands of the Sharks. Quality over quantity, I suppose.

Season Series: The Oilers won three of four, with the teams trading five goal outbursts in the 2021 part of the year and Edmonton taking a pair of one goal victories in 2022, one in a shootout. It played out similarly close from a play-driving perspective, too. One interesting thing to note: the Kings actually outscored the Oilers while Edmonton’s man-advantage, which ranks 4th in the NHL, during the season series, including killing of all 10 Oilers attempts.

Edmonton Wins Because: They have a clear edge in high-end talent. More importantly, with Los Angeles’ best defenseman Drew Doughty done for the season, the Kings don’t have what it takes to stop them. There are so many things you can say about Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who have combined for each of the last two and three of the last five Hart Trophies. The former is a transition machine with game-breaking speed and hands softer than silk. The latter is blessed with both eyes in the back of his head and a shot that travels faster than sound.

Yes, the defensive concerns are real (especially for Draisaitl), but they’re undoubtedly the game’s most dynamic duo. Quantifying their impact is nearly impossible. But I’ll pull an anecdote from Dom Luszczyszyn’s player cards on The Athletic to try. You ready? McDavid and Draisaitl have combined for $34.6 million of value, $20 million of which belongs to McDavid.

Stop it. STOP IT.

That is the task at hand for the Kings, and it is one that even the best defenses have trouble stopping. Both players had more games this season where they scored multiple points than games where they didn’t score any. It is almost enough to completely overlook the 57 point gap between Draisaitl and Edmonton’s next leading scorer, Zach Hyman (51 points). Almost.

To be fair, that almost label could be a thing of the past in a couple of months. It’s not that the Oilers don’t have talent behind their two big horses. Hyman and Evander Kane, brought in mid-season, have been strong presences in both throwing their bodies and lighting the lamp. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ numbers are certainly inflated a bit from sharing so much ice-time with one or both players. But he’s a solid playmaker and defensive forward in his own right. Jesse Puljujärvi is one of the game’s most underrated players — he’s 12th in the entire NHL in Expected Goals percentage. This is easily the best supporting cast McDavid and Draisaitl have ever had.

Is it enough, though? That obviously remains to be seen. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Oilers is that as a team, they actually generate more off the cycle than they do on the rush. Usually opposing teams talk about taking away a team’s biggest strength. But given how potent McDavid and Draisaitl are, turning this into as much of a dump-and-chase, physical series as possible seems like the best way to win. The Jets were able to turn McDavid into only an above average player instead of a total game-changer in terms of entries with chances per 60 minutes last year. And doing just that made all of the difference.

Here’s the good news for Edmonton. One — doing that again will be incredibly hard. Two — the Oilers are better equipped to deal with it if it does. This is Edmonton’s way of hedging its bets. Force us to chip and chase? We’ve got a team full of players who can succeed in that environment. Try to go run and gun with us? You already know how that’s going to end. The Kings are almost certainly going to do the former; it’s how their team is constructed. That actually means more of the onus could be on the supporting cast than against, say, Colorado or Florida, who might be content to trade chances by figuring their incredibly talented offenses can outscore McDavid and Draisaitl.

Los Angeles Wins Because: They have the perfect mix of youthful exuberance and playoff experience. It’s no secret the Kings are the underdogs in this series, and leaning into that role requires two things: a bunch of kids too stupid to understand their low odds and veterans to guide them through the treacherous waters. Even if the Kings go out in this series, gaining playoff experience for their young talent is likely enough to make this season a success in management’s eyes. While the old guard is still carrying most of the load, the Kings are starting to phase their young players into the equation. There’s nothing more frustrating than falling behind to a team who’s just happy to be here. And that frustration is certainly capable of spiraling.

You could argue that the Kings, at least up front, are actually a pretty tough matchup for the Oilers. While Edmonton is built around two centers who are all gas, no breaks, the Kings have two players down the middle better than almost anyone at stopping their opponents in their track. Look no further than LA.’s big offseason signing Phillip Danault. Montréal doesn’t even make it out of the first round last year, let alone reach the final, if not for Danault’s defensive wizardry. Here’s how each of the top three goal scorers of Montréal’s opponents in the first three rounds fared against Danault and the Canadiens.

Opponent (From Round 1-3)3 Leading Goal ScorersCombined Reg. Season Goals/GameCombined Playoff Goals/Game
Toronto Maple LeafsAuston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander0.490.29 (6 Goals in 7 Games, or 21 Combined)
Winnipeg JetsKyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler/Andrew Copp (Tie)0.370.06 (1 Goal in 16 Games Combined)
Vegas Golden KnightsMax Pacioretty, Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault/Alex Tuch (Tie)0.380.04 (1 Goal in 24 Games Combined)
Note: this chart doesn’t count John Tavares or Mark Scheifele, who were injured and suspended, respectively, in Game 1 of their series against Montréal.

For those keeping score at home, that’s eight goals for eleven players, all of whom scored at least at a 22-goal pace over 82 games. That means these trios/quartets should have been good for at about a goal per game (combined, not each) during the playoffs. Only Toronto came close to matching that threat. And they did so with easily the most lethal trio and completely on the back of William Nylander, who not only had five of the six goals, but wasn’t part of Toronto’s top-line, which Danault was assigned to. It would be foolish to give Danault all of the credit for this, of course. But he certainly deserves some. And when you put him behind a former Selke winner in Anze Kopitar on your depth chart, yeah, you can see how that duo could be intimidating.

The 2011-12 Kings were similar if not greater underdogs than this year’s team. Yet they went from eight seed against the President’s Trophy winning Canucks to lifting the Stanley Cup in record time. How did they do it? Outstanding 5-on-5 play and tremendous goaltending. That year’s Kings team second in the NHL in Corsi For% and sixth in Expected Goals%. They sit fifth and seventh in those categories this year, respectively. The Kings may not exactly be full of household names, but they’ve found a way to thrive at 5-on-5.

Despite having the reputation of being a very physical team, the Kings are actually at their best when playing with pace. Only the Avalanche and Panthers created more offense off the rush than Los Angeles. It says a lot about McDavid and Draisaitl that playing that way might not be the way to go. The good news is that the Kings are also above average at creating off the forecheck as well. They rank 13th in the NHL at recovering the puck when they dump in, while Edmonton is 21st (the Oilers are more about quantity over quality when it comes to forechecking).

The ultimate dream is to force the puck off McDavid and Draisaitl’s sticks and take advantage of an Oilers d-core that doesn’t defend the blue-line well as a group. But that’s a lot to ask for. The Kings are capable of breaking the puck out their zone as well. That area that takes a hit without Doughty but still remains solid. Defensemen like the emerging Sean Durzi and the underrated Matt Roy will be key to the Kings avoiding mistakes

Replicating the other half of that 2012 equation will be tougher. In order for any team to beat the Oilers, they’re going to need a significant edge in net. It’s Edmonton’s biggest weakness, and maximizing the gap is vital — just ask Connor Hellebuyck. The Kings certainly have an advantage entering the series here. Although the extent of it has more to do with having two solid options than one truly great one. That could pay off deeper into the playoffs, but that requires getting there in the first place.

The 2021-22 season began as the Jonathan Quick redemption tour. The two time Cup winner began the year sitting top ten in the league with a .923 save percentage on Dec. 31. However, neither he nor the younger Cal Petersen have been particularly strong in 2022; both have a .896 save percentage in exactly 25 games. Quick is actually still sitting at seventh in the NHL with 17.3 goals saved above expected. Maybe L.A.’s defense has been significantly worse with Quick in net than Petersen, who sits at -8.7. Maybe Quick is just being propped up by his strong start. Or maybe it’s a little bit of both.

I’d bet on Quick starting the series if only because of his extensive playoff experience. There’s a solid chance the Kings get better goaltending overall on the series than Edmonton. But if they dig themselves into an early hole by picking the wrong guy, goaltending probably won’t be enough to dig them out of it.

Players to Watch

EDM: Perhaps no player better exemplifies Edmonton’s approach last offseason than Zach Hyman. The Oilers felt like they already had enough skill, figuring the best way to support their star players was by filling out their lineup with physicality and well-roundedness. Here’s the thing — that approach isn’t necessarily a bad one. As long as you pick the right players to fill out your roster. Hyman, a fixture next to Auston Matthews since their rookie seasons in 2016-17, is certainly a good player. And while you can quibble with the contract Ken Holland handed to him or how well Holland executed the rest of that approach, Hyman has certainly done his part so far.

Hyman has unsurprisingly found his most success playing with McDavid, which has made up a little under half of his 5-on-5 minutes so far as an Oiler. The two have been rock solid together, posting a 59.48% expected goals share together and outscoring opponents 24-17. McDavid’s helped Hyman register a career-high 25 goals, 20 of which have come at 5-on-5. Hyman’s been perhaps a bit less effective on the power-play than the Oilers were hoping for. But the unit as a whole is still functioning smoothly. And Hyman has also been solid on the penalty kill for the Oilers.

While Hyman isn’t the type of player who will drop their gloves if someone breathes on McDavid, he certainly adds a reputation of physicality and skill to Edmonton’s top-line that went missing when Zack Kassian regressed after a strong 2019-20 campaign. This series should (start) to tell us just how much of a difference maker having that element is.

LA: Speaking off offseason acquisitions, can you name the last time the Kings traded a more significant package of draft capital than what it took to get Viktor Arvidsson (a 2nd and a 3rd) last summer from Nashville? That would be the Milan Lucic trade at the 2015 NHL Draft, which cost the Kings their 2015 1st round picks and then two young up-and-comers in Colin Miller and Martin Jones. While Lucic was productive in his lone year with the Kings, the Arvidsson trade is already a bigger hit than that deal, if only for the fact the latter is locked up for two more years after this season.

That could’ve been more of a bug than a feature if Arvidsson hadn’t bounced back in his first year with the Kings. L.A. took a fairly significant risk trading for Arvidsson after two down years in Nashville, especially given the length of his contract. But Kings GM Rob Blake knew the team needed more goal-scoring to have a shot at a competitive season, and identified Arvidsson as a logical bounceback candidate. The undersized scorer still drove play to a very high degree last season. Sure enough, he’s third on a stellar play-driving Kings team in Expected Goals percentage.

The already trigger happy Arvidsson is firing like he’s never fired before, registering 12.36 shots per 60 minutes. That mark ranks sixth in the NHL. He’s done most of his damage at 5-on-5; 40 of his 48 points have come there. Oh, and he’s got plenty of playoff experience from his time with the Predators, finishing tied for the team lead with 10 assists in Nashville’s surprise 2017 Stanley Cup Final run. Arvidsson’s been pretty unproductive in the playoffs since then, though, so he’ll undoubtedly be looking to return to that 2017 form with the Kings. Los Angeles has some solid forwards on their wing — Alex Iafallo, Adrian Kempe, and Dustin Brown are still capable players. Quinton Byfield is very talented looking a bit further down the lineup. But Arvidsson represents the Kings’ best shot at having an impact scorer.

The Pick: It’s a shame that Doughty is out for this series, because I think his presence would give L.A. a puncher’s chance here. But without him, I simply don’t see enough here to slow down McDavid and Draisaitl. And unlike last year’s Jets, who at least had a comparable amount of firepower to Edmonton. They obviously not one player like McDavid or Draisaitl. But you could do worse than a forward core led by Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, and Blake Wheeler.

The Kings just don’t have that offensive burst in them. Los Angeles’ lone path to victory is basically dependent on getting white-hot goaltending. And while Jonathan Quick’s done that before, it’s not wise to expect that from him (or Cal Petersen) at the respective stages of their career. This has been an undeniably positive year from the Kings. But this is where it ends. Edmonton in 5.

Oddly Specific Prediction: This is an idea I always 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 his; the predictions are mine. While the Kings may go down in this series, they’ll make sure to provide at least one more happy moment this year. Dustin Brown, who announced he’ll retire at the end of L.A.’s playoff run, will score a big goal assisted by one of the Kings’ youngsters in a fitting, emotional passing of the torch moment.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick, Corey Sznajder’s All Three Zones (subscribe to his Patreon here) and Moneypuck.com

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