Goaltending, middle-six forwards let Oilers down
The Edmonton Oilers have been eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. There will be ample debate as to how to improve this lineup for another run at a title, but of critical importance is understanding why Jay Woodcroft’s team fell short against the Vegas Golden Knights.
There are two distinct answers: the Oilers did indeed have an even-strength problem, and goaltender Stuart Skinner proved unreliable when Edmonton needed him the most.
Let’s talk about the even strength issue first, because I ultimately think it’s where most of Edmonton’s attention needs to be spent this summer. When we previewed this series, the concern was that Vegas could create material advantages in the non-Connor McDavid minutes, and so long as Vegas didn’t spend every waking moment in the penalty box, they could build a path to victory by dictating play and forcing the Oilers to defend.
After six games, we know well which matchup Vegas feasted on, and why Edmonton is headed home. The tandem of Jack Eichel and Jonathan Marchessault (who put the final nail in the Oilers proverbial coffin with a Game 6 hat trick) feasted on Edmonton’s middle-six forwards:
Vegas was protecting leads more often than not, and Edmonton’s goaltending capitulated at the tail-end of this series (more on that in a moment), which is why expected goals are a lot tighter than real goals for the respective teams.
But look at the Eichel and Marchessault line (playing alongside Ivan Barbashev) – total territorial domination, and explosive goal scoring. So explosive it was the primary difference in the series.
If we isolate on that eight-goal advantage the Marchessault line ran up over the course of the series, this is what the matchups looked like:
The Oilers were reticent to break up the McDavid and Leon Draisaitl duo for stretches of the series, and it left the rest of the lineup vulnerable. The Ryan Nugent-Hopkins line was blown off the ice as a result, and the Cody Ceci and Darnell Nurse pairing bled scoring chances (and goals) in just about every fixture of the series. These are staggering numbers to run up in a matter of six games, and I think it’s the part that Woodcroft may lose some sleep over.
Vegas was much more effective than Los Angeles in the round prior at pressuring Edmonton and forcing them to play off the puck. More offensive zone time meant fewer threatening opportunities for the Oilers’ offensive playmakers, but it also put significant pressure on the Edmonton blueline and Skinner in net to play clean in the defensive third.
And it worked.
While Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard looked very game for this series, the rest of the Oilers defence melted against Vegas’ oppressive forecheck. Compounding the issue was dreadful goaltending at the worst of times for Skinner – so good in the regular season he made you forget about Jack Campbell’s heinous first season, so bad in the playoffs he made you yearn for Campbell.
Vegas was one of the very few opponents Edmonton could have drawn where there was no goaltending advantage. The Golden Knights, owing to injuries, were down to journeyman Adin Hill and fifth-string Jonathan Quick by Game 6. But consider how the two teams fared in the goaltending department, measured by goals saved versus expectations (all situations):
Edmonton probably deserved a bit better of fate in the offensive end considering the calibre of goaltenders they were facing, but full marks to Hill, who was brilliant in relief and a stark contrast relative to what the Oilers yielded from Skinner.
As illustrated over at HockeyViz, Golden Knights shooters converted on seemingly everything from the dangerous areas of the ice:
There are plenty of other factors explaining Edmonton’s elimination, but the porous play from their middle-six forwards and a goaltending mini-meltdown are surely at the top of the list.
Edmonton’s depth has, albeit slowly, improved from where it was in the earlier parts of McDavid’s career. But the goaltending puzzle remains incomplete, and last year’s big investment in Campbell looks like a failure.
That, combined with Skinner’s flameout, lays the foundation for another round of Oilers investment at the goaltending position – even with limited cap space. The team is too talented to sacrifice more time from the peaks of McDavid and Draisaitl ’s careers, and it was the 800-pound gorilla in the room all season long.
Pulling off the salary cap gymnastics to fit more money in at the goaltending position won't be easy after Campbell's long-term deal, but it may be a necessity after this year.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference