Round 1 is finally getting started tonight in the North division, kicking off in Edmonton with the Winnipeg Jets coming to town to face the Oilers. There won’t be any fans in the stands, but the energy level will undoubtedly be ramped up being that both teams have had plenty of rest days and are ready to come out swinging with a chance to grab an early series lead. The regular season series fell greatly in favor of the Oilers, but that doesn’t tell the whole story of this matchup.
First, let’s take a look at the starting goaltenders. Mike Smith will be between the pipes for the Oilers, after having a stellar regular season, setting a franchise record for save percentage with a .923, surpassing Cam Talbot’s 2017 mark of .918. It’s also second to Smith’s personal record of .930 from his 2012 campaign with Phoenix, which saw him carry the Yotes all the way to the Western Conference Finals, ultimately coming up short against the eventual champion LA Kings. Smith is 39 years old, but he’s playing some of the best hockey of his life.
Opposite him in the Winnipeg crease will be Connor Hellebuyck. The 28 year old Michigan native is coming off regular season numbers including a 2.58 GAA and .916 save percentage. He also has a trip to the Western Conference Finals to his credit in 2018, and he’s recently been a Vezina finalist. This will be his fourth consecutive playoff appearance. I give the Jets the slight edge in this department, despite it being somewhat of a down year for Hellebuyck while Smith is having one of his best years. Let’s take a look at the Defensemen that will be out in front of him.
The Winnipeg D core is led by Josh Morrisey. He’s 26 years old and a 13th overall pick from the 2013 draft. The Calgary native has spent his entire 6 year NHL career in Winnipeg, starting out in a supporting role behind the likes of Jacob Trouba and Dustin Byfuglien, and then moving into a number one role following their departures. This year, he finished as a minus player for the first time in his career (albeit only a -1) and finished second in scoring among Jets defensemen with 21 points in 56 games. Leading Winnipeg D in scoring was Neal Pionk, an undrafted college free agent acquired from the New York Rangers in the deal that saw the jets move on from Trouba. He had 32 points in 54 games, and finished the year as a +6. The Omaha kid is an electrifying, right handed, puck moving defender capable of going coast to coast and burying the puck all by himself. He’s yet to score a playoff goal in his NHL career, and I’d bet that changes in this series. Their supporting cast includes Derek Forbort and Dylan DeMelo, two established NHL level defensemen that are known for their play in their own end, but also can contribute offense somewhat regularly. The true shutdown D on this team is Logan Stanley, a hulking Ontario native and former first round pick in his first year of NHL play. He didn’t chip in a lot of points this year but finished with an impressive +13 rating on a team that desperately needed a solid shutdown guy in his mold. There are a few options for the 6th defenseman, including Jordie Benn, Nathan Beaulieu and Tucker Poolman, none of which jump off the page, but they are all serviceable bottom pair guys.
The Oilers blue line has been a weak spot for years, but they’ve made a few additions and seen some prospects develop that have really changed that narrative. The glaring negative about the D core they’ve iced this year is the absence of Oscar Klefbom, who missed the entire season with an injury. Despite that, they have an impressive group led by veterans Tyson Barrie and Adam Larsson. Barrie had the highest points per game of his career, finishing with 48 points in 56 games. It’s his first year with the team after spending last year in Toronto. 28 year old Larsson is a former 4th overall pick, and an experienced shutdown defender that can play top 4 minutes, block shots and kill penalties. The breakout star of this year was Darnell Nurse. He’s 6 foot 4 and 220 pounds, a perfect top pairing shutdown defender who was a +27 this year, but he’s also been churning out points in the shortened season, posting a career high in points per game of his own with 36 points in 56 games. He’s a warrior of a player that rarely misses games, and a former 7th overall pick in his own right. Another promising young gun is Ethan Bear, a 23 year old right handed rearguard who chipped in 8 points in 43 games this year and plays bigger than his actual size, coming in at just under 6 feet and 200 pounds. Another revelation of youth this year has been Evan Bouchard, another top 10 draft pick that spent the year split between the Swedish elite league and the NHL. The Oilers front office saw his 17 points in 23 games in Sweden and decided it was time for him to come back, and he hasn’t disappointed since returning to the lineup. He picked up 5 points over the final 14 games, and if he could pack on a few more pounds he’d be an intimidating force at 6 foot 3. Beyond that the Oilers have youngsters Caleb Jones and William Lagesson, as well as veterans Kris Russel and Dmitry Kulikov for options as the 6th man. The Oilers get the edge on defense by a small margin, as they appear to be deeper on the blue line despite missing one of their top D for the whole year. Let’s dive into forwards next.
Edmonton is led by none other than captain Connor McDavid, who is coming off the most impressive season of the century so far. He finished with 105 points after playing in every game of the 56 game shortened season. His pace this year hasn’t been seen since the early 90s from guys like Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky. It almost makes you forget that Leon Draisaitl had 84 points, but it just takes a quick look at the list of league leaders from this season to be reminded. The duo finished one and two in scoring once again, and it wasn’t a close race. Third place Brad Marchand finished with 69 points (nice,) an incredibly impressive feat, dwarfed by the accomplishments of McDavid and Draisaitl this year. The Oilers will go as they go this postseason. Beyond them, the Oilers got breakout years from Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto, who had 25 and 21 points respectively. Puljujarvi’s 15 goals stand out, as he’s proven he has one of the more dangerous shots in the league this year. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins continued his consistent pace seen throughout his career, finishing with 35 points in 52 games. James Neal had 10 points in 29 games and showed the world he isn’t done quite yet. Alex Chiasson, Josh Archibald and Jujhar Khaira had decent years production wise, but they all play strong checking games that will wear down opponents over the course of night through relentless forechecking. Dominik Kahun had a less than impressive regular season, but he’ll get a chance to turn it around in the playoffs as he’s proven he has some offensive weapons that can make a difference if he’s playing with the right players, namely Leon Draisaitl who he’s found some chemistry with.
Winnipeg has a decent one two punch down the middle of their own in Mark Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois. Scheifele led the team in scoring with 63 points in 56 games and has proven to be a top 10 center in the league over the years. Dubois, on the other hand, had something of a down year after being unceremoniously traded from Columbus and only posting 8 goals and 20 points in 41 games. Regardless, he’s super talented, he’s big and strong, and he’s definitely not easy to play against. The bottom line, though, is that they are nowhere near the level of McDavid and Draisaitl. Where the Jets have the advantage is on the wings. Nikolaj Ehlers is questionable to play tonight, but he will be back and he’ll bring a scoring punch after having 21 goals and 46 points this year. You can definitely expect to see Kyle Connor, the speedy American winger who had 26 goals of his own as well as 50 points. Veteran captain Blake Wheeler matched Ehlers total of 46 points as well, and another veteran to look out for is Paul Stastny, who can play any forward position up and down the lineup (mostly up) and has an extremely strong two way game. Andrew Copp had a career year with 39 points. So did Mason Appleton with 25 points, and Adam Lowry matched his career pace with 24 points. I gotta give the Jets the edge at forward based on their levels of scoring depth, but if McDavid and Draisaitl can keep up their dominance from the regular season, all the depth in the world won’t make a difference. It’s on them to light a fire throughout the rest of the Oilers forwards to outweigh the Jets scoring depth.
So what’s my prediction? Well, despite giving the Jets the edge in two out of three categories, I’m gonna give this one to the Oilers in 6 games. What I saw from McDavid and Draisaitl this year, particularly McDavid, is something that was reminiscent of Lemieux and Jagr on the Penguins in the early 90s, and they led that franchise to their first championships. I think this is the start of the return to glory for the Oilers, and their dominant duo will prove too much to handle for the Jets defense. I believe the Oilers will be the team to come out of the North this year, and the once in a generation talent of McDavid with his best supporting cast yet will get him his first chance at Stanley Cup triumph. Not to mention the Oilers dominated the Jets in the regular season series 7-2, but I don’t believe that carries too much weight in the playoffs. The McJesus dominance will simply be too much for the Jets to handle over a 7 game series.