Playoff series are technically always must-wins. If you lose, your season is over and the dream is dashed. However, there's levels to this thing. Some teams are happy just to make the playoffs and consider the season a success no matter what happens. Other teams have realistic goals of winning a round and being content with the direction of the franchise.
For the Edmonton Oilers, they've made the postseason three times in the Connor McDavid era. It started off fine in 2017, when you think about it from the above perspective. A young team made the playoffs for the first time, won a first-round series against the Sharks and then lost a hard-fought second-round series in seven games against a team seeded above them in the Ducks. You can build on that.
The issue for the Oilers is that they have not done that. They missed the playoffs in 2018 and 2019. In 2020, they lost in the qualifying tournament as a No. 5 seed against the No. 12 seed Chicago Blackhawks. It was an embarrassing result, but it could be explained away by the oddity of the whole circumstance. Last year, the Oilers were swept in the first round as heavy favorites by the Winnipeg Jets.
Here we go again in 2022. The Oilers are sizable -250 favorites to advance past the Los Angeles Kings, a young building team that very few people expected to make the playoffs at the start of the year. They can't compete with the Oilers from a talent perspective. If Edmonton loses this series, you can't help but think major change will occur. This is a must win for the Oilers, so let's dive in.
The resumes are pretty even
By earning 104 points during the regular season, the Oilers finished with the second-best record in the Pacific Division. They finished five points ahead of the Kings, who ended the season as the No. 3 seed in the division. With the divisional format of the NHL playoffs, the two teams are set to face off. The Oilers were the better team in the regular season, so they'll have home-ice advantage.
However, if we look beyond the records and take a peek at the puck-possession and shot-generation metrics, these teams are even closer than what the standings would lead you to believe. They're especially closer than what the betting line for this series would suggest.
Both teams were slightly above average when looking at their expected goal (XG) rate, according to Natural Stat Trick. Los Angeles finished the season ranked ninth, with an XG rate of 53.1%. Edmonton ranked 12th, posting a rate of 51.9%.
When you break it down by side of the ice, the teams remain pretty equal.
Despite Edmonton's reputation as an offensive juggernaut, it was actually the Kings who did a better job of generating offense this season. Los Angeles ranked fifth in the league in XG-for, creating nearly 2.8 expected goals per hour at 5-on-5. The Oilers were solid themselves, but they ranked ninth in the league with a mark of 2.69 XG per hour.
However, the Oilers scored 2.72 goals per hour at even strength, surpassing their expectation. The Kings scored just 2.33 goals per 60 minutes, severely lagging behind their expectation. This discrepancy can be explained by luck and talent level. Los Angeles had the worst 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the league this season, which is part unluckiness and part lack of talent.
Defensively, it was more of the same. Both teams were slightly above average in terms of expected goals against, but the Kings had a slight edge (2.45 XG/against per hour compared to 2.49).
With the talent disparity between these teams, it should come as no surprise that the Kings want to keep this game at 5-on-5. Edmonton had the third-best power play in the league during the regular season, while Los Angeles ranked 27th. Both teams had below average but not disastrous penalty kills.
Edmonton's top-end talent is the difference
We looked at the standings and we looked at the analytical resumes of these two teams, and nothing would suggest that one of these teams should be a -250 favorite over the other. However, once you look at the rosters of these teams, it becomes obvious what the difference between these two teams is. Edmonton has two of the league's five best players, and even though hockey isn't a sport that is easily impacted by individual dominance, it certainly changes the equation.
Connor McDavid finished the regular season with 123 points, which led the league. This is the fourth time in the last six years where McDavid has finished the year on top of the points leaderboard. While he might not win MVP this year, there's no denying who the most game-changing talent in this league is.
Leon Draisaitl is one of just two players who finished top 5 in both goals and points this season. His 55 goals trailed just Auston Matthews, and his 110 points ranked fourth behind McDavid, Jonathan Huberdeau and Johnny Gaudreau.
Once you eliminate those two players, you can make the argument that the rest of the forward groups between these two teams is pretty even. However, you probably shouldn't disregard two of the league's best players.
Evander Kane joined the Oilers midseason, and he hasn't missed a beat. He played at a 40+ goal pace on McDavid's wing. Jesse Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamomoto and Zach Hyman have all fit in well in Edmonton's top six. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins slides in as the third-line center, making him one of the best third line centers in the league.
The Kings are led by Anze Kopitar offensively. He's still producing, as proven by his 67-point regular season. He's also one of the better two-way players in the league, and the Kings will need him to do his part in shutting down either McDavid or Draisaitl if they want any chance.
Phillip Danault earned a reputation as a defensive stud in the 2021 playoffs when he shut down the likes of Auston Matthews and Mark Stone during Montreal's improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final. However, he took a huge leap offensively in his first year with the Kings, as his 27 goals are more than double his previous career high.
While Danault and Kopitar are nice players, they obviously pale in comparison to McDavid and Draisaitl. The Kings have some nice forwards like Adrian Kempe, Viktor Arvidsson, Trevor Moore and Alex Iafallo, but they're at best on par with the Oilers' supporting group.
The Kings lost future Hall-of-Famer Drew Doughty for the season, but they still might have a better defense than the Oilers. Nevertheless, there's no true standout No. 1 defenseman on either of these teams. Both teams have groups that are below average compared to most playoff teams.
Defense might be the weakest point of the Oilers roster, but the Kings aren't really in a position to take advantage of the weakness. Duncan Keith used to be one of the league's best, but those days are gone. Tyson Barrie is an offensive juggernaut, but his 5-on-5 play in his own zone can be terrifying. Darnell Nurse and Evan Bouchard is a fine pairing, but not a pair that most playoff teams would be comfortable having as their number one pair.
The two expected starting goaltenders for these teams are a combined 76 years old, but both are having solid seasons.
Mike Smith has taken the reins down the stretch for the Oilers, after dealing with some injuries earlier in the year. He's got a .915 save percentage and a +6.9 goals saved above expectation (GSAx) according to Evolving-Hockey. While he won't be winning any awards for those numbers, he's been solid enough for a team that can outscore almost anyone.
Jonathan Quick has two Stanley Cups on his resume, but it looked like his better days were behind him after three straight subpar seasons from 2018-2021. Quick has been better this season, but a lot of that is fueled from his early-season performance. His +12.0 GSAx is inflated by his tremendous start to the season. Quick has posted a save percentage below .910 in every month except one since January, though that month was April, so maybe he's picking it back up at the ideal time.
The best bet
This is hockey, so we're not going to lay -250 on almost anything. I don't think the Kings have nearly enough firepower to hang with the Oilers, but I can't lay -250 on Edmonton to win the series. There's probably some value with the Kings at +200, but I think the Oilers get over the hump here and win the series.
The talent disparity between these teams is obvious. Los Angeles has underachieved based on their metrics all season long because there's just not enough high-end talent on the roster. Also, Edmonton is getting hot at the right time and has really turned its season around under new coach Jay Woodcroft. The Oilers went 13-2-1 in their final 16 games and they look to be figuring everything out at the right time.
I think Edmonton wins this series in five, maybe six games. Therefore, I'll take Edmonton on the series spread -1.5 games at -115. As long as Edmonton wins and doesn't need seven games, we cash.