This young Oilers team is already exceeding expectations in their first run through the playoffs in the Connor McDavid era. While their fans may have expected a playoff run, they likely didn’t expect a team that would contend for first in the pacific this early, or dominate a tough Ducks team on their home ice.
They made it into the playoffs behind the Anaheim Ducks and got through their first test against the San Jose Sharks without much cause for concern.
Apart from a 7-0 thrashing by the aging Sharks, they never looked like they were truly on their heels in that first round. Even when the Ducks came out and pounded them on home ice to open a 3-0 early deficit in Game 3, the Oilers answered. They clawed their way back into the game tying it at 3-3 (before allowing three additional goals) and even though it didn’t end with the results the Oilers wanted, it wasn’t a wholly negative experience. But, it is certainly one they would like to improve on.
After their 6-3 loss, there is a lot of reflection, and there are several key areas that need to change. While you can’t really hang the 6-3 loss on Cam Talbot‘s head, he’ll have to be sharper early to avoid the Ducks early bid for momentum and give his team chance to swing it in their favor.
The Oilers went into Anaheim with everyone expecting the Ducks to physically beat the Oilers forward corps into the boards and introduce them to their brand of hockey. Of course, the beatings came, and the Ducks were very successful stealing faceoff wins, but the Oilers never ceded the advantage in spite of everything that was working for the Ducks. With all that the Ducks bring to the table, not many gave them any significant edge in the series. In fact, many had the Oilers winning the series over the Ducks in spite of their defensive advantages.
With all that the Ducks bring to the table, not many gave them any significant edge in the series. In fact, many had the Oilers winning the series over the Ducks in spite of their defensive advantages.
That series is still to be determined, but it’s clear the Oilers still have some work to do in order to ensure they wind up with their ticket to the Western Conference Final.
No one expected the Oilers to win twice at the Honda Center to open the series, but that is exactly what they did. Certainly, no one really expected the Ducks just to lay down either. And in Game 3, it was clear that the Ducks had no intention of doing anything of the sort.
So, What changed? For the Ducks, they kept on doing what has been working for them. Winning faceoffs and working matchups, though in Edmonton, they are having to utilize the quick change after the faceoff to out duel Todd McLellan in the matchup chess match. Of course, the Ducks have learned how to do this after it was used against them in the 2015 Western Conference Final by Joel Quenneville. This is where the Ducks past experience is put to good use.
In addition, Sami Vatanen came back, giving the Ducks a full push from the back end. The blue line is the one area of the ice that the Oilers may still be lacking, and the Ducks are fully prepared to expose a perceived weakness. The front lines are going to have to be defensively better to compensate.
The Oilers have a number of solid defensive players, but all of their blueliners could use a bit more seasoning apart from perhaps Kris Russell (who got caught looking on Ryan Kesler‘s goal). Russell might be a little over salted if you get my drift.
Tilting the Balance Back
Of course, the Ducks defensive depth and their ability to win faceoffs at will, tilt the ice towards the Ducks, but that doesn’t mean the Oilers can’t turn the favor back to their side. It’s going to require better two-way play from all of their forwards, including McDavid. As the leader, everyone is looking to him.
For all of McDavid’s high-end offensive skill, there were a few times that he has been exposed on defense. Which is not to say his defense is terrible, just that it’s still a work in progress.
This was especially evident in game three when he was on the ice for three of the six goals against. But, he also produced a highlight reel goal and that can certainly draw focus away from the negatives.
It’s not that he isn’t working defensively, it’s just that his defensive approach is often more of a drive by fruiting than a focused effort.
McDavid has so much speed, and he is very aggressive on the attack (much like his offensive game), but too often he does a ‘Maverick’ flyby, going for a quick poke check that doesn’t quite have the finish it does on the other end. An example can be seen around the 30-second mark where McDavid makes an effort but doesn’t quite finish the job on Shea Theodore who assists on Jakob Silfverberg‘s second of the night.
McDavid’s speed can often expose him as the Ducks offensive talent has figured out his MO and are doing a better job of protecting the puck and forcing him into the drive by using his own speed against him. So, if McDavid fails to separate his man from the puck in his flyby, then his speed has already carried him away making a second attempt impossible. It works on the other end because his speed allows him to slip defenders and change directions on a dime (as seen in the highlight reel goal above). McDavid’s fearlessness gives him virtual backstage access to the netminder. However, the Ducks have done a solid job keeping McDavid to the perimeter and forcing him to shoot from further away.
As we so often discuss, defense creates offense and McDavid will certainly get his opportunities, but at the moment he’s in an unfamiliar situation where he is being limited by a defensively talented team who have clearly done their homework on the Oilers captain. If he wants to start imposing his will, it is most likely going to start with the Oilers (collective) defense creating turnovers and better offensive opportunities.
Eberle Where Art Thou?
Of course, this is a team effort, and McDavid is not the only player being tested. Jordan Eberle has been referred to as a passenger by TSN’s Ryan Rishaug. At times, Eberle can come off as a very one-dimensional player, which unfortunately makes him (or any one-dimensional player) very easy to neutralize. For Eberle, it shouldn’t be a lack of talent that hinders him, so that leaves an element of laziness to blame. That is often difficult for a coach to combat and is likely the reason he has been the topic of trade talk for much of his career.
When he’s scoring, it’s easier to forget that he is a little soft defensively as he prefers the approach of a giant lap dog over a vicious German Shepherd in his defensive approach. All too often, he’ll come down on opponent’s with menacing speed only to give him a snow shade and completely avoid any physical contact.
If you have the speed to catch an opponent, then it is inexcusable not to use the opportunity to impede their movement and do whatever it takes to either force a turnover, or at the very least make their next move difficult. Shouldering a player to the boards to slow their momentum or cut off the passing lanes forcing them to make a pass into traffic or lose the puck altogether would certainly be one approach he could use.
— Jermain Franklin (@TSNJFranklin) May 1, 2020
Coach Todd McLellan called Eberle’s effort out as ‘Not Enough” after his Game 3 performance (where he was on the ice for three goals against), but he hasn’t had a great postseason even without the missteps from his line (with McDavid and Milan Lucic) in the Ducks loss.
He’s put up just one assist in the series and two throughout the playoffs. With 51 points on the season (20 G, 31 A) McLellan is going to need to see more from Eberle as well.
While defense is a subject that is bound to come up, the other area that the Oilers are going to have to figure out is winning faceoffs. Kesler, Ryan Getzlaf, and Antoine Vermette are dominating on the dot (107-70) in the series and it has allowed them to dictate the lines more than the Oilers would like on their ice. Using Quenneville’s past tactic, they have managed to use faceoff wins to get the most favorable matchups when McLellan should be able to dictate matchups at Rogers Place.
The quick change neutralizes whatever plan McLellan had and forces him to either ride out the unfavorable matchup or make a change on the fly and hope not to get caught. The only way to avoid this is to win the faceoff.
Edmonton playing with fire, losing all these faceoffs in their defensive end #ANAvsEDM
— Christian Collins 🎙 (@mediachristian4) April 29, 2020
Only one Edmonton player was above 40 percent on the dot in Game 3, Mark Letestu (12-7), and that’s going to have to change if the Oilers want to change the outcome. There is no reason to believe they can’t find a way, as they managed to control and win games in spite of the faceoff discrepancy in a hostile environment, at least in tonight’s matchup they will have their home crowd at their back (more of their home crowd, as Oil fans travel well).
No Stifling Greatness
McDavid’s relatively quiet production against Anaheim can frequently be attributed to Ryan Kesler. A pest who works to take away time and space to force a player to take shots from areas of the ice that might not normally be prime real estate. Kesler often does this by employing some less than legal tactics, but that has been part of Kesler’s game since he came into the league and more often than not its’s going to go unnoticed by officials.
#NHLDucks 6th goal.
— OilersNation.com (@OilersNation) May 1, 2020
With McDavid, he likes to drive fearlessly to the net and creates his best chances in high danger areas. It is what makes him so effective, but Kesler has found ways to limit his chances from inside the dots and effectively cut him off from John Gibson as well.
The ‘greasy’ areas that McDavid made bank on all season long is currently a desert mirage off in the distance. He still gets some opportunities (like the goal from Game 3 below), but he is having to work a lot harder for them.
Breakdown of Connor McDavid's goal tonight. Took 1.5 seconds to burn Sami Vatanen. Ridiculous. pic.twitter.com/s0b7DOkbKF
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) May 1, 2020
Of course, this is where McDavid differs from Eberle. His work ethic is tough to dispute and is going to be the reason that McDavid’s defense will not be a long-term flaw in his game. If there are any perceived flaws in McDavid’s game throughout his career, he will put his head down and get to work on finding ways to eradicate them. It is what makes McDavid such a sure fire star for many years to come and why he so often earns comparisons to Sidney Crosby. He is consumed by the need to evolve his game and silence criticism.
There is little doubt that he will find a way to mute the sound on this argument quickly.
The Oilers definitely have some holes to cover, but they certainly have shown they can overcome some of these obstacles in this series and there is no reason they can’t maintain control (2-1 series lead).
McDavid will undoubtedly do what has come to be expected of him and lead the way, and it would surprise no one if he did so by showing up big on the scoresheet. For all the success Kesler has had in the league, McDavid may be among the most talented (if not the most) players he’s ever had to stop, and it is unlikely he can stop him for seven games.