NHL North Division First Round Playoff Preview: Winnipeg Jets versus the Edmonton Oilers.
Edmonton took second place in the North Division, representing the Canadian teams. Their 35-19-2 record produced 72 points, five points shy of Toronto for first place.
This regular season for the Oilers continued the promise this team demonstrated last year when they finished fifth in the Western Conference before the stoppage of play. Their defense and goaltending let them down in the play-in qualifying series as they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in four games.
General manager Ken Holland bolstered the offensive attack in the offseason. He signed defenseman Tyson Barrie as a free agent from Toronto to quarterback the power play. He had 34 assists as a Maple Leaf last season. Holland took a flier on center Kyle Turris, with the hopes that the 31-year old could resurrect his career away from Nashville. Holland was also able to convince Jesse Puljujarvi to return to the team after the former fourth pick in the 2013 draft left the club disgruntled after the 2019 season to return to his native Final to play professionally.
Chronic shoulder issues kept Oscar Klebfbom, perhaps the team’s best pure defender, off the ice all season. Holland addressed that area of need at the trade deadline by acquiring Dmitry Kulikov from New Jersey.
Edmonton will go as far as Connor McDavid can take them. He made his claim to being the best player in the world with 33 goals and 72 assists. His 105 points put him on a 154-point pace for a full regular season which would have put him in the rarefied air of Wayne Gretzky’s and Mario Lemieux’s best seasons. Leon Draisaitl anchors the second line at center with another 31 goals and 53 assists. These two play together on the Oilers’ power-play unit that led the league with a 27.6% success rate. That mark followed up a 29.5% conversion rate on the power play last season. Head coach Dave Tippet got better results when his team was playing at a man disadvantage this season. Edmonton was top-ten in the league in the fewest chances allowed, and they allowed the fewest goals when defending their opponent’s power play.
Mike Smith rebounded from a .908 save percentage last season to post a .923 save percentage in 32 games. The 38-year-old posted a 21-6-2 record in his 30 starts with a 2.31 goals-against-average for the season.
Winnipeg claimed the third seed in the North Division with a 30-23-3 record. Their 63 points were four points ahead of Montreal but nine points behind the Oilers.
The Jets were in ninth place in the Western Conference when play stopped in March last season. Paul Maurice’s team returned in the bubble with a best-of-five qualifying series with Calgary, which they lost in four games. Injuries to Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine during that series left Winnipeg without two of their top forwards. Connor Hellebucyk was a bright spot, with a 2.57 goals-against-average and a .922 save percentage last season. His +20.8 saves above his expected save metric helped him win the Vezina Trophy for the best goaltender in the NHL.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff traded for forward Paul Stastny in the offseason to play on the second line. He then pulled off a blockbuster trade in January by trading Laine and forward Jack Roslovic to Columbus for center Pierre-Luc Dubois. Cheveldayoff acquired Jordie Benn from Vancouver at the trade deadline to add depth on the blue line.
Center Mark Scheifele leads the team with 63 points coming from 21 goals and 42 assists. Left wing Kyle Connor’s 26 goals are a team-high. Hellebuyck has been good once again, with a 2.58 goals-against-average and a .916 save percentage.
Edmonton dominated the regular-season series with seven wins in regulation in their nine meetings. McDavid was nearly unstoppable with nine goals and 15 assists in those nine games. However, Winnipeg upset the Oilers as a +145 money line underdog in the opener of this series in Edmonton on Wednesday.
Edmonton hosts Winnipeg on Friday at 9 PM ET. BookMaker lists the Oilers as a -160 money line favorite with the total set at 5.5. The NBC Sports Network has the broadcast.