This is a matchup of two teams who’ve had very different fates over the last decade. The Oilers have spent most of their time at the bottom of the standings and at the top of the draft order. This was destined to change when they selected superstar Connor McDavid first overall just one year after picking up the NHL’s current top scorer, Leon Draisaitl, at third overall. However, it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows as the duo brought the Oilers to the playoffs once in their four years together so far. The Blackhawks, on the other hand, have found tremendous success as a modern-day dynasty through a duo of their own. Kane and Toews are now looking to inspire a young supporting cast to attempt at a late-career fourth Cup. The Oilers, are going to want to make sure that doesn’t happen and hope this year can finally be the year McDavid and Draisaitl become the new model duo.
Coaching and Style
Dave Tippett and Jeremy Colliton have very different levels of experience coaching at the highest level. Tippett, who’s made it to the conference finals twice, encourages the team to pay attention to the details of the game. He tries to limit the number of events in order to have the most control over the outcome. This only somewhat works, as he relies on his top offensive lines with McDavid or Draisaitl to make the difference and give his team the edge. His heavy use of the top players opens play up and creates some defensive problems, but as long as he has control over the rest, he can expect to win that battle. Colliton has a very different approach. His system doesn’t try to contain play but rather encourages high pace transitional hockey. For his system to work, Crawford will need to bail them out and their sharpshooters will need to connect.
The Blackhawks have the advantage in net without a shadow of doubt. The reason they are in the position to play in these play-ins despite their lack of defence is cause of Crawford’s phenomenal performances. Crawford has proven himself in the playoffs before and is the backbone to the success of this Blackhawks team. He will be tested against the two best offensive players in the world though, and he will need to perform for Chicago to have a chance. Recent reports are suggesting he is not 100% confirmed to be healthy by the time the series comes. This would be a massive blow to Chicago.
Goaltending for the Oilers is far more open. Smith and Koskinen split time this season so it’ll be interesting to see who Tippett gives the nod to in net. I wouldn’t be surprised if he trusts Smith – the goalie who’s play he rode all the way to the third round with the Coyotes in 2012. Despite Smith’s playoff experience, Koskinen may be the better option as he performed at a far higher level throughout the season. Whichever goalie does get picked in the end, hasn’t had as much success as Crawford this season and won’t be as critical for their team.
The blueline isn’t very impressive in this series. That being said, the Oilers are far more complete. They may not have a clear top guy and they receive very little offensive contribution, but what Tippett did with this group is still impressive. He gave the Oilers a strong foundation. Klefbom and Larsson cover deep very well and will get try to get in the way of the Blackhawks who shoot from right around the slot.
This deep defensive play is furthered by Russell and Benning also playing as minimalistic foundational players. This sounds like it would be the perfect area to cover against the Hawks, but their ability against the rush isn’t great. The only player who had good numbers 1v1 was Caleb Jones, who had limited ice-time and isn’t sure to be in the lineup. As you may notice from the style chart above, they have almost no transitional or build-up ability in the top pairing. This means that youngsters Nurse and Bear, who offer a different dimension to the Oilers defence will be relied upon to move the puck up. Bear has good passing range and Nurse skates the puck very well. It’s unlikely this trait is needed against Chicago, but it does round out their defence.
The Blackhawks played the worst team defence in the league. Duncan Keith will probably be given the big minutes but he’s lost lots of his ability since he won the Conn Smythe in 2015. At this point, he sits back and his value comes almost solely from his build-up passing to support the transitional attack. In fact, stretch passes and build-up play are common attributes within the Hawks defence. Colliton makes up for the defensive chaos by encouraging these fast passes to counter-attack the other way. Adam Boqvist will be heading into his first playoff run but he’s already one the league’s top passers. My model has him near the top of the league in both build-up passing and as an in-zone quarterback.
The defencemen who don’t use their quick passing, De Haan and Maatta, still help the transition as they are great skaters with the puck.
At the end of the day, the Blackhawks defensive group is solely based on supporting the quick tempo rush but doesn’t match up to Tippett’s complete and safer approach.
Both forward groups are built quite differently. The Oilers rely on their top six to make a difference while the Hawks have a more potent top nine in terms of scoring power. One thing remains the same though, McDavid, Draisaitl and Kane are three of the most dynamic scorers in the world and will be constant threats as they take on helpless defenders 1v1.
Tippett will be giving McDavid and Draisaitl loads of ice-time and they will be feasting on the lack of structure as two of the best playmakers out there. Yamamoto will also be a key fixture in the top six and his pairing with Draisaitl has been perfect. This is because he can play in the harder areas that Draisaitl stays out of while keeping a high level of hockey IQ and playing on the same wavelength.
The one thing missing that could give the Hawks an incredibly hard time is a strong forechecking presence. Patrick Russell would offer that as one of the best checking forwards in the league, but he’s not guaranteed to be in the lineup. Despite this, the top lines should be able to pick apart the Blackhawks. The bottom six is very low impact for the Oilers. James Neal can offer an important scoring touch, especially on the power play but they mostly play in a typical safe Tippett fashion.
Just as their defensive group does, the Blackhawks will hit the Oilers on the rush. Kane, DeBrincat, Saad, Nylander, Highmore and Kampf are all in the top 80th percentile for transitional players. Strome also supports the transition from deep extremely well. Jonathan Toews can run the cycle and is a great playmaker while DeBrincat and Kane have elite shots. On the third line, Kirby Dach has had a good rookie season and Calder nominee, Dominik Kubalik, adds a prominent scoring threat. Going through it, it seems as though the Hawks have weapons everywhere, which is true. The downfall comes in the same area as the Oilers, the forecheck. The difference though is that the Oilers defence is much harder to expose without forechecking which may be a problem for the high-tempo and sharpshooting Blackhawks.
Key Factors and Final Thoughts
This series will be a perfect chance for McDavid and Draisaitl to impose their dominance. The Hawks are not built to defend against such firepower and their hopes really hinge on Crawford shutting them down. If they get the goaltending, Chicago’s counter-attack and offensive firepower can be deadly. A team like Chicago could make Tippett pull his hair out and be lots of fun to watch. Despite this, the Oilers big guns have little excuses for their struggling fans if they miss the playoffs once again given this matchup, especially if Crawford isn’t healthy.