Ever since they went first and second overall in the 2015 NHL Draft, Jack Eichel’s faced unavoidable, sometimes harsh comparisons to Connor McDavid. Fair or not, those comparisons are likely to pick up as the Vegas Golden Knights and Edmonton Oilers gear up for a second-round series between the Pacific Division’s two best teams.
To an extent, it’s only human to compare the top two picks of a draft. Sometimes that means comparing a really great player (Eichel) with one already approaching iconic status (McDavid).
When the focus wasn’t on inevitable-but-unfair McDavid comparisons, Eichel also had to eat a ton of blame for the Buffalo Sabres’ full-scale ineptitude, with some people grasping at takes about how it all proved that tanking is inherently flawed.
Now in his first true full season with the Golden Knights, Eichel’s mostly running with a chance to be a top star on a team with some actual support around him. That won’t be enough to distract people who will continue to emphasize the distance between Eichel and McDavid, though.
However, Eichel might get the next, loudest laugh if the Golden Knights can knock the Oilers out of the playoffs. Let’s dive into the key facets of this series, from the star power, to question marks in net and much more.
Eichel vs. McDavid, Stone vs. Draisaitl; will Oilers keep loading up?
Through the first three games of a back-and-forth series against the Los Angeles Kings, McDavid created plenty of chances, but couldn’t convert at all in a pointless Game 1, and all three of his points in the next two contests came on the power play. While McDavid remained terrifying on the man advantage throughout the series, his even-strength production finally unlocked with Leon Draisaitl on his line.
That’s interesting for a number of reasons, including that the old hangup was that Draisaitl sometimes struggled to carry his own line at 5-on-5 when separated from McDavid.
Heading into this Oilers-Golden Knights series, Edmonton head coach Jay Woodcroft must mull over a choice. Should he keep those two superstars together, or go back to a more balanced approach where they carry their own lines at even strength?
Some of that could come down to matchup preferences and how Vegas rolls out its lines. Last round, Mark Stone spent most of his even-strength time with Chandler Stephenson (almost 70 minutes) and Brett Howden (nearly 50), while he fell short of 18 total minutes alongside Eichel.
With Stone injured for much of the regular season, it’s unclear how often Vegas would deploy Stone against McDavid or Draisaitl if the Oilers starts are split up, but there’s slight evidence that Edmonton may prefer sending Draisaitl instead of McDavid out against Eichel.
From a reputation standpoint, you’d think Stone would be the forward you’d want to keep McDavid and/or Draisaitl away from when Edmonton has the last change. Yet, with Stone returning (quite early) from his latest back surgery, there may be some temptation to test a cerebral player who isn’t exactly fleet of foot on his healthiest day.
Going top-heavy with Draisaitl, McDavid and (mostly but not always) Evander Kane paid dividends for that line, but splitting them up could help one of them avoid a tough matchup. Maybe just as importantly, there was evidence that a less balanced approach put some strain on other lines, particularly putting a bit too much on Nick Bjugstad, a nice depth player who maybe shouldn’t be on the second line.
Here's a look at The Hindenburg Line aka Hyman-Bjugstad-Nuge. May we never see it again pic.twitter.com/xqqvFtUnMQ
— Dennis King (@DKingBH) April 30, 2023
Whether they’re going head-to-head or trying to keep up with each other on the scoreboard, Draisaitl and McDavid vs. Eichel and Stone is just plain fun. It could also be the most important “chess match” to watch between Woodcroft and Golden Knights head coach Bruce Cassidy.
Vegas needs to mitigate a potentially huge special teams edge for Edmonton
Any way you slice it, the numbers scream that the Oilers hold a huge special teams advantage against the Golden Knights.
During the regular season, the Oilers converted at an historic rate of 32.4 percent. Somehow, in that series against a structured Kings team, Edmonton was even deadlier, scoring on a ludicrous 56.3 percent of its power-play opportunities.
That audacious mark tops the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but guess who's second on that list? The largely sour Winnipeg Jets, who fell in five games to the Golden Knights despite the Jets scoring on 41.7 percent of their man-advantage chances.
To turn the knife in deeper, the Golden Knights' penalty kill (77.44 percent) also ranked a bit below average during the regular season.
Could this all translate to a towering special teams edge? That may hinge on how much the officials lean into the league’s unspoken, unsettling penchant for “game management.” Despite the Oilers earning the sort of territorial advantages that often translate to more calls (or at least even calls), the Kings received almost one more power-play opportunity per game (3.50) than the Oilers did (2.67) in Round 1. In comparison, the Golden Knights’ modest power play averaged 3.20 opportunities to 2.40 per game for the Jets.
If the calls are anywhere close to even, the Oilers figure to get an edge on special teams. Even this group of players is likely to cool off well below their current rate, but this unit simply creates a ton of chances without providing opponents with many answers. If officials take pity on those trying to kill penalties against the Oilers, it could be the sort of subtle force that nudges a drastic difference closer to the parity the NHL adores.
Both teams with questions in net
To the Golden Knights’ immense credit, they earned the top spot in the Western Conference amid consistent turmoil between the pipes. From Robin Lehner missing the entire season to injuries to Logan Thompson and Adin Hill, it’s been a wild ride, and Jonathan Quick hasn’t been the ticket despite a trade deadline Hail Mary.
It’s a testament to how Cassidy’s had them play, and to goalies like Thompson and now Laurent Brossoit hanging in there. As a journeyman goalie, Brossoit, 29, boasts OK experience (117 games) but has long been marked as a backup. He was steady against a middling Winnipeg attack (albeit with some big-name weapons) last round, sporting a solid .915 save percentage.
The Oilers faced their own goaltending headaches, seeing Jack Campbell wash out after a big offseason commitment. Stuart Skinner deserves plenty of kudos for rolling in as a steadying presence, even if an All-Star appearance was a bit much. The Kings series was rocky at best for him, though, with Skinner generating a rough .890 save percentage.
Being that both goalies wander in with skinny resumes (especially in the playoffs) and shaky backup options behind them, the objective for both teams is likely to render those questions moot.
Broadly, for the Oilers, it might mean outscoring any problems. With the Golden Knights, they’ll hope to create a nurturing cocoon for Brossoit.
A defensive edge for Vegas, but maybe a smaller one than believed?
In the simplest terms, the Golden Knights hope to slow the Oilers down, avoid taking penalties and win low-event games. Most would agree that Vegas deploys the two best defensemen in the series (Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore) while sending out a competent group without too many obvious weak links to pick on.
Under Cassidy, this team plays reasonably, something this Hockey Viz heat map captures nicely. Shots mostly come from the perimeter, rather than the dangerous middle of the ice.
Yet, even before the Oilers made the tide-turning trade for Mattias Ekholm, their team defense was better than many people realized. Consider this Hockey Viz chart for their 5-on-5 defense, which only included Ekholm for 21 games.
Of course, Stone would be the first to tell you that defensemen aren’t the only consideration in protecting your own zone. For the most part, the Golden Knights boast more balanced two-way forwards, most obviously Stone but also a multi-faceted player such as William Karlsson.
That perceived depth advantage may or may not get the Oilers circling back to burning questions about keeping Draisaitl with McDavid or striving once more for better overall balance.
Structurally, both teams have generally been sound at limiting chances from the highest-danger areas.
Now, sure, you’re not going to confuse the 2022-23 Oilers with one of Jacques Lemaire’s most yawn-inducing trap teams. They’ll sacrifice some coverage since they attack so much, with blueliners like Evan Bouchard and Darnell Nurse bringing their greatest value by creating more than they give up (but they do give up some chances).
Prediction: Oilers in six games
Although the NHL’s seen a surge in scoring, there are still moments when a stout defense can slow down even the most explosive offense. Few teams are as well-equipped to make things difficult for the Oilers as this Golden Knights team.
That said, the Kings featured some of the traits that spelled some trouble for Edmonton, and the Oilers eventually beat them. While things were close, the difference was more convincing once you broke down the numbers, and that even goes for 5-on-5.
Draisaitl and McDavid are forces to be reckoned with, and the Oilers have never done a better job surrounding them with players who can chip in. Expect a potent clash between the top two teams in the Pacific, one where you definitely shouldn’t count Vegas out.