Jets vs. Oilers: 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round preview

It’s easy to look at the Edmonton Oilers and view them as a one-man team. If you’re being kind to Leon Draisaitl (and you should, he’s great), then some might call them a two-man team, alongside Connor McDavid.

But that feels unfair to an Oilers team that took the North’s second seed by a hefty margin. An Edmonton group that enjoyed the sort of goal differential you’d expect from a legitimate playoff team.

Will the Oilers lean on McDavid and Draisaitl a ton? Sure, but don’t underestimate this group. Let’s look at this Oilers – Jets series, and why Edmonton should be considered favorites.

OILERS VS. JETS – series livestream link

Wednesday, May 19: Jets at Oilers, 9 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Friday, May 21: Jets at Oilers, 9 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Sunday, May 23: Oilers at Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Monday, May 24: Oilers at Jets, 9:45 p.m. ET
*Wednesday, May 26: Jets at Oilers TBD
*Friday, May 28: Oilers at Jets TBD
*Sunday, May 30: Jets at Oilers TBD

Jets – Oilers: Stories to Watch

Can McDavid (and Draisaitl) conjure playoff magic after historic regular season?

At some point during the 2020-21 regular season, Connor McDavid wasn’t really competing with other players — even Leon Draisaitl — for the Hart Trophy. Instead, in blowing away the already-unthinkable milestone of 100-plus points in 56 games, McDavid adjusted his crosshairs. McDavid was battling history.

Of course, once any sports superstar starts to truly dominate as an individual, critics will demand even more. Specifically, they’ll want that individual to enjoy team success.

As hard as it is to believe, it was something stars like Michael Jordan and Mario Lemieux faced as superstars stuck on overmatched teams. (Most of us can at least remember Alex Ovechkin‘s troubles, right? Hey, take your eyes off Roblox for a minute, kiddos.)

For years, the Oilers have been so hopeless, even McDavid and Draisaitl couldn’t save them.

There’s never been a better opportunity for McDavid, Draisaitl, and the Oilers to go on a run — and it would be fair to be disappointed if they ran out of gas vs. the Jets.

If the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs end up like years past, then that puts a lot of pressure on McDavid. That’s because in hockey, what should happen isn’t always what actually happens.

(Camera pans to Jaroslav Halak in 2010.)

Connor vs. Connor

Connor McDavid is the world’s greatest hockey Connor, but Connor Hellebuyck makes for one excellent silver medalist.

(Frankly, he was probably the best Connor last season, when he dragged the Jets to a playoff berth.)

Quietly or not, Mike Smith‘s been fantastic this season. Even so, it’s fair to say that, if a member of the Jets carries Winnipeg (in a good way, that is), it’s most likely that Connor Hellebuyck will be the one doing it.

If you go by 2020-21 season stats alone, Hellebuyck might make the wrong kind of difference. Against every other Canadian/North Division team, Hellebuyck produced a .911 save percentage or better. In seven games against McDavid and the Oilers, Hellebuyck went 2-5-0 with a not-very-Hellbuyckian .877 save percentage.

Really, the Jets should cross their fingers that officials put away their whistles. The Oilers scored eight power-play goals in seven games vs. Hellebuyck. (The closest other team: the Canadiens with five PPG, and that was through nine games.)

On paper, the Jets don’t just need their goalie to match the Oilers’ netminders. They most likely need Hellebuyck to be the all-world goalie he often is (but hasn’t always been against Edmonton).

Will the Jets get the most from their best players?

This hasn’t been the kindest season to the Winnipeg Jets’ best players. Maybe the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs could provide a springboard for a rebound?

You could say that it started when Patrik Laine was traded. The Jets didn’t match the John Tortorella drama of Columbus, but then again, who could? It was still fair to wonder why that didn’t work out, and if Paul Maurice & Co. were maximizing players’ potential.

(So far, Pierre-Luc Dubois has been … fine. His underlying metrics are middle-of-the-road, and his production’s unspectacular [20 points in 40 games].)

There’s also only so much the Jets can do about Nikolaj Ehlers, whose injury status is unclear. It would certainly be great to get him back, as Ehlers has transformed from someone us nerds thought was really good, to someone just about anyone realized is quite special.

Heading into this series with the Oilers, the Jets’ other top players have experienced drama.

Back in February, Paul Maurice got flustered by analytics-driven critics of Blake Wheeler.

Oh, and speaking of Torts, Maurice also benched Mark Scheifele in a Tortorella-like way.

From a casual perspective, the Jets might match up with the Oilers in a best-on-best way. Maybe Scheifele, Wheeler, and others just get hotter than McDavid, Draisaitl and their teammates? Perhaps Hellebuyck makes up the rest?

But, if you go by this season, it’s tempting to pin hopes on depth players swinging thing. (But mostly Hellebuyck.)

Two impressive special teams units — especially Edmonton’s power play

If there’s one area where both the Jets and Oilers should be confident, its their power-play proficiency.

With a 28.1-percent success rate as of May 13, the Oilers comfortably topped the NHL. The Jets were spry in that area, too, though, popping at a 23.1-percent rate.

Neither penalty kill unit was dominant, but both stood as solid enough this season.

Overall, the Jets might be more keen on this series being low on penalties than the Oilers. But it’s possible that one or both units could swing games, if not the series as a whole.

One big question for Edmonton: Sorry Mike Smith, it’s goaltending

To reiterate: Mike Smith has been fantastic this season. Shockingly so. By most measures, Smith enjoyed a better regular season than Connor Hellebuyck.

But Smith is also 39, and really struggled in both 2019-20 and 2018-19.

While Smith remained in Wednesday’s game, he also got dinged up in a meaningless game for Edmonton.

Now: goaltending is less of a question for Edmonton that it seemed to be coming into 2020-21. Credit the Oilers for believing in Smith when many thought he might be long in the tooth. On paper, the Oilers have some serious advantages (their defense is better than a shabby Jets group), and Hellebuyck could very well outplay Smith to a difference-making degree.

One big question for Winnipeg: Are they falling apart?

If it weren’t for the Canadiens also stumbling down the stretch, the Jets might have slipped the fourth spot in the North Division.

For about two-and-a-half seasons, the Jets have been sporting the underlying metrics of a team that could easily miss the playoffs. The difference has been that Connor Hellebuyck’s been fantastic, and their top players have been able to outscore their problems.

After managing that balancing act remarkably well for some time, it’s been a scary fall lately. (Maybe Nikolaj Ehlers was the secret sauce? The Jets’ struggles amplified without Ehlers.)

Despite these setbacks, it’s not that difficult to picture the Jets putting it together enough for a run. There’s still some significant talent on this roster. They just haven’t inspired a lot of confidence lately.

Jets – Oilers series prediction: Oilers in six

Ask around among hockey fans, and people can poke holes in even the best North Division teams. Yes, the Maple Leafs look great, but … have you followed them? Bad things happen to them during the playoffs.

So, it’s easy to dismiss the Oilers, especially if you believe that they don’t have much beyond McDavid and Draisaitl.

While they’re not as deep as the deepest teams in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, this is a more versatile and polished Edmonton group than we’ve seen since McDavid landed. The Jets are underdogs, and some might not even pick them to win two games against the Oilers.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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