Play-In Preview #1: Edmonton vs. Chicago

An Analytical Breakdown of the NHL's Play-In Round

GAME STORY: Blackhawks 4, Oilers 3 (OT)

Before the hiatus, the Edmonton Oilers were all but assured their first playoff spot since 2017 while the Blackhawks were en route to their third straight playoff miss. None of that matters now, with a potentially wild series coming up in July. Both teams are dynamic offensively and flawed defensively, and we can anticipate a fast-paced high-scoring set of games. But who will come out ahead? The Oilers are understandly favoured by most due to the imbalance between their respective finishes in the standings. But anything is possible in a five game series, and I think this one has the potential to be really interesting. I’ll go through the two teams’ play-driving, offensive, and defensive stats before comparing their respective forwards, defencemen, and goaltenders. For information on the stats used, refer to this explainer article or visit EvolvingHockey and MoneyPuck.

Play-Driving

Neither of these teams is exactly impressive when it comes to possession metrics, both well below even in every category (save for Chicago’s goals for rate). The Oilers are the better team in most categories unaffected by goaltending, including a decisive lead in the percent of games in which they outplayed their opponent at 5v5. Both teams took a dip in possession play in March, especially notable for the Blackhawks who had been on a consistent upward trajectory before that. The Oilers come out ahead in this category, but not in inspiring fashion. Winner: Oilers

Team Offence

The Blackhawks were better offensively at even strength, generating expected goals and actual goals at a higher rate than the Oilers. Conversely, Edmonton had the league’s best powerplay, which was a massive component of their position in the standings. Neither team was particularly impressive from a shooting perspective, both slightly below average (a function of depth for the Oilers and slumping top sixers for the Blackhawks). This is a tough call, in large part because the idea that there are fewer powerplays in the playoffs is a myth. The gulf between the teams’ powerplays is significantly larger than the difference in their even strength play, but the Blackhawks’ excellent quality chance generation and their upward trend in that regard since December makes this really tough. Winner: Toss-Up

Team Defence

Team defence is not a strength of either of these teams, but this is nonetheless a huge and potentially decisive mismatch. Despite coach Dave Tippett’s sterling reputation, the Oilers were a well-below-average even strength defensive squad, allowing the 10th most expected goals against in the league and 7th most actual goals over the course of the season thanks to overall unimpressive 5v5 goaltending. Their penalty kill was a strength, and in terms of raw PK% they ranked 2nd in the league; however, EvolvingWild’s team WAR model attributes that in large part to the goalies. The Blackhawks, on the other hand, were an absolute mess defensively, rescued from the basement solely because of the valiant efforts of Corey Crawford and (now-departed) Robin Lehner. No team - not even the Red Wings - allowed higher quality chances against than them. Winner: Edmonton

Forwards

The Oilers and Blackhawks’ even strength forward units are constructed very differently. The Oilers are extremely top-heavy, which two excellent units headlined by Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Second-half breakout Kailer Yamamoto could also be a major difference-maker. Their bottom six is significantly less potent offensively and has very little finishing ability, especially their liability of a fourth line; however, McDavid and Draisaitl play more than any other forwards in the league, and it is very likely that they will be frequently double-shifted to reduce this imbalance. Edmonton’s ability to win this series will rely greatly on whether the play of their top six can fully overshadow their depth problems.

The Blackhawks, on the other hand, run a balanced top nine of veterans and talented young players. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Dylan Strome are dynamic offensively, each in the top 10% of forwards in that respect. Their top six does have some major defensive deficiencies due to the decline of Toews’ two-way game and especially Kane and Strome’s single-minded focus on offence. However, Dach, Shaw, and particularly Kubalik are more dangerous players than anyone in Edmonton’s bottom six. The fourth line grades out adequately overall but could be improved by keeping Smith out of the lineup. If the Blackhawks can take advantage of their superior depth and terrorize the bottom of the Oilers’ lineup, they could very well have the upper hand here.

In terms of total WAR, Chicago’s forward group comes out ahead thanks to the gulf between bottom sixes. But I’m not so sure. The biggest question for me: Who’s going to cover McDavid and Draisaitl? None of the Hawks’ centres rank in the top third of forwards in terms of defensive numbers. Toews has not been an effective defensive player since the Blackhawks last won the Cup, and while the motivation of a playoff series might inspire some more effort it’s by no means a guarantee that he can light the old spark. A split up McDavid and Draisaitl means that either one of the best offensive players in the world will be on the ice for well over half of the game, and if the Hawks can’t reduce their effectiveness they will be in deep trouble. Winner: Toss-Up

Defencemen

Neither of these teams has a very impressive blueline, headlined by a pair underwhelming #1 defencemen: Oscar Klefbom and Duncan Keith. Klefbom has declined since the last time the Oilers made the playoffs due in large part to injuries, and despite playing big minutes has provided the team with very underwhelming results in the past few years. Keith, on the other hand, has become a downright liability as age and presumably fatigue have taken their toll on his play, particularly defensively. Both of these players might benefit from the hiatus, but it is unlikely that either will regain their former greatness.

The Oilers’ blueliners as a unit are not very active in the team’s offence, ranking 30th in the league in terms of offensive contribution; however, they were relatively strong defensively. This indicates that coach Tippett prefers his backend to be passive and focus on reducing the counter-attack chances that inevitably arise from the way that McDavid and Draisaitl prefer to play. An exception is Darnell Nurse, who ranks in the top 10% of defencemen in terms of offence, but at the cost of his defensive play. Someone to watch will be Ethan Bear, who was above average at both ends in a strong rookie season this year.

The Hawks don’t have much name recognition on their backend, but they do have some very solid lesser-known players. Connor Murphy and Slater Koekkoek put up very solid numbers this season in a challenging situation, while new acquisitions Olli Maatta and Calvin De Haan are servicable options overall. Meanwhile, rookie Adam Boqvist is a dynamic offensive presence but a liability in his own end (as you might expect from a 19 year old rookie). What this group is really lacking is a top-end shut down player who can limit the opportunities that McDavid and Draisaitl will get. Maatta is the Hawks’ best defensive defenceman but has been known to be turnstiled by quick fowards off the rush - not exactly the kind of guy you want staring down #97. This group matches up very poorly against the Oilers’ top end stars and the run-and-gun style that they play, and while they might be well-equipped to handle their opponent’s bottom six, I would expect to Duncan Keith get victimized a lot in this series. Winner: Toss-Up

Goaltending

Goaltending, especially playoff goaltending, is a bit of a crapshoot, and it’s very difficult to predict how it will turn out in a seven-game (let alone 5-game) series. Nonetheless, this looks like a sizeable mismatch. At even strength, Crawford was comfortably a top-ten starter in terms of dSv% (difference between expected and actual save percentage), while Mike Smith was near the bottom. This was reversed on the penalty kill, where Smith played elite hockey and Crawford was significantly worse. Both goalies have very solid rebound control. It’s also worth looking at how their play trended throughout the season; while Smith definitely improved in 2020 compared to the first half of the season, he struggled quite a bit in March, while Crawford was consistently strong from January onwards. While it will be worth watching how Crawford fares against the Oil’s powerplay, this position is a major strength for the Blackhawks. Winner: Chicago

Conclusion

In a lot of the stats, Chicago comes out looking like a stronger team overall - they have a stronger team even strength offence, a more balanced forward group, a more dynamic defence, and a much better goalie. But their weaknesses are so glaring and such a bad match for Edmonton’s strengths that I have a very difficult time believing that they are the favourite to come out ahead in this series. The Oilers live and die by their offensive superstars, who thrive on a run-and-gun speed game that the Hawks do not have the right players at centre or on defence to shut down. It is very likely that McDavid and Draisaitl will feast on Duncan Keith and Olli Maatta off the rush, and considering the number of minutes they will likely play this could counter-act the team’s depth disadvantage. To counteract this, the Hawks will need Kane and Toews to drive the offence, Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome to regain their 2018-19 form, and Dominik Kubalik and Kirby Dach to expose the weakness of the Oilers’ bottom six. This series looks like it will be a high-scoring affair, and Corey Crawford will need to bring his best for Chicago to keep up. Prediction: Oilers in 5