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2024 NHL playoff preview: Vancouver Canucks vs. Edmonton Oilers

By Dom Luszczyszyn, Shayna Goldman and Sean Gentille

October  Printable Calendar With Canadian Holidays
October Printable Calendar With Canadian Holidays

Say what you will about the current playoff structure, but it definitely works as intended when it comes to delivering big-time matchups.

Vancouver vs. Edmonton certainly qualifies, as it’s a tale of former sad-sack franchises rising from the ashes of epic mismanagement.

October  with holidays calendar
October with holidays calendar

It’s a series with incredible star power headlined by electrifying superstar captains on either side. It’s a battle for western Canada supremacy backed by rabid fan bases hungry to win it all.

It’s also a series that isn’t expected to be very close. Between Edmonton and Vancouver, there’s a wide divide.

The odds

Back in October, Vancouver likely would’ve accepted just being here in the first place. Not many expected this kind of contention from the Canucks — and that includes the front office. Check the preseason transcripts.

That perspective is important when looking at the lopsided number above. This season is still found money for a team that is only in the beginning stages of its ascent. There is still a mountain to climb to reach the Oilers’ current spot on their trajectory. Juggernaut territory isn’t earned overnight — or over the span of one season. Edmonton’s resume has a bit more substance to it, and that includes this season where everything under the hood suggests the Oilers are a much stronger team.

That doesn’t make this series unwinnable for the Canucks, though. Far from it. It just means it’ll be a mighty challenge against a team that has more to offer across the board. For the Canucks, a lot will have to go right.

The numbers

Naturally, a team led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl brings the heat offensively. That they aren’t the only contributors in Edmonton anymore solidifies their attack.

The Oilers were one of the most high-octane offensive teams all season. At five-on-five, they finished top three in shot volume, expected goal creation and actual goal creation. Edmonton brings a ton of pace with its puck movement via its transition play and high-danger passing. Add its lethal power play and it’s easy to see how it led the playoff field in Offensive Rating heading into Round 1.

The key was maintaining that against a team as strong defensively as the Los Angeles Kings, whose primary task was to slow Edmonton down. Los Angeles couldn’t contain the Oilers, which is why they’re here — with an even higher Offensive Rating at plus-77.

That’s what the Canucks are going up against.

Vancouver is a solid defensive team. In the regular season, it finished in the top six in shot and expected goal suppression with the goaltending to match. A lot of that was fueled by second-half improvements. The Canucks carried that into the playoffs with a stingy Round 1 performance against the Nashville Predators that improved their Defensive Rating.

With that uptick, though, came a slight downgrade in Offensive Rating. The Canucks struggled to score in Round 1, and that’s going to have to change to match up against the Oilers. A strong defense and penalty kill, which Vancouver has, will help, but the Canucks need some scoring pop to match. As the regular season went on, Vancouver proved they weren’t just a product of a high shooting percentage. Now, in Round 2, they have to pick the pace back up.

The big question

Can Arturs Silovs keep Edmonton’s offense at bay?

The Canucks need more offense for two reasons: The first is obviously to match up with the Oilers; the second is to give their goaltending some support, especially without the safety net of Thatcher Demko.

Demko returned to the blue paint for the last few games of the regular season and looked sharp as ever. He gave Vancouver a chance to win Game 1 against Nashville with a quality start and instilled a lot of hope into the Canucks’ return to the postseason.

Then came the surprising news that he would not be in net for Game 2. Casey DeSmith took over for Games 2 and 3, but an injury held him out of Game 4. That brought Vancouver down to their third-string option, Silovs.

When Silovs took over, he’d started just nine games across the last two regular seasons. Seven were pretty solid and included six quality starts, but those were bookended by two awful appearances: his first (February 2023 against the New York Rangers) and last (April 10 against the Arizona Coyotes). Overall, he earned an .898 save percentage and was pretty average relative to the shot quality he faced.

Those nine games contribute to Silovs’ minus-3 Net Rating, which pales in comparison to Demko’s plus-9. But to Silovs’ credit, the model is based on that small nine-game sample, with heavy regression toward replacement level. Any time a player’s rating is based on a sample that small, it can be highly volatile — and that’s especially true at the most volatile position of all. So the model may be underselling Silovs’ capabilities.

Round 1, at least, helped show what Silovs can do at this level. His first two starts weren’t anything special, but he was stable enough behind the Canucks. Game 6 is where he really shined. Against 49 unblocked shots, he saved 3.39 goals above expected to steal the series-clinching win.

That Silovs managed to be the difference in a high-pressure, series-clinching game should give the Canucks some confidence.

But as good as Nashville may be, Edmonton is a completely different beast. The pace will pick up in Round 2, along with the shot volume and quality. The Oilers’ dynamic passing will make every shot all the more dangerous, as will their elite finishing talent.

The Oilers are a test for any goaltender at the NHL level, let alone one as inexperienced as Silovs. He can’t steal this series on his own. Most elite goaltenders probably couldn’t be expected to against Edmonton, either. So Vancouver can’t count on him alone to keep the Oilers’ offense at bay. As much pressure as there will be on Silovs, there may be even more on the team in front of him.

The Canucks gained some experience in managing without Demko over the last few weeks of the regular season and really raised their game on both ends to give their second- and third-string goalies more support. That defensive support was again on display through Round 1 in what became an incredibly low-event series. But against Edmonton, the expectation can’t be a low-scoring series. So the offense has to be ready to try to outpace whatever gets past the Canucks’ defense and Silovs in net.

The X-factor

How much weight should be put on this year’s head-to-head record?

As a rule of thumb, focusing on head-to-head regular-season results is a shaky proposition. Rosters, lineups, coaches, systems, day-to-day circumstances — lots can change over six or seven months. That’s why the model puts zero weight on that particular factor.

This series, for two reasons, is Example A. Vancouver and Edmonton played four times in the regular season, with the Canucks winning all four and outscoring the Oilers 21-7. Sounds bad for Edmonton — and it was. The first three were back in October and November, though, before they replaced Jay Woodcroft with Kris Knoblauch. It might as well be five years ago; that’s how dramatically things have changed for the Oilers. The first two in particular were part of a season-starting back-to-back and featured Jack Campbell’s first mid-game exit. The final game, a 3-1 Canucks win on April 13, didn’t involve McDavid. He appears to be healthy these days, as the Kings can attest.

Beyond that, the games were closer than the scores imply; in fact, the Oilers won on expected goals 15.3 to 13.6. Bad shooting luck, abysmal goaltending (which seems to have been fixed) and Vancouver’s power-play efficiency (which has waxed and waned) fueled a huge chunk of the results. The slate is clean, and the playoffs are better for it.

The rosters

The top four players in the playoffs according to Net Rating are McDavid, Zach Hyman, Draisaitl and Evan Bouchard. Combined, they were at plus-10.1 over five games, which essentially means Edmonton’s plus-9 goal differential during the series can be chalked up to this quartet — all of whom earned value well above already-high expectations.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. The same truth applies to the team’s projected output. The team’s Net Rating is plus-87 — not far off the combined output of that quartet. That’s the team. Stop them and you stop the Oilers.

That’s easier said than done — especially in the playoffs, where McDavid and Draisaitl have a penchant for elevating their games. The lethal power play scored a mindboggling 21 goals per 60 and only added to the feast at five-on-five. McDavid and Hyman were especially thrilling, earning 69 percent of the expected goals while outscoring Los Angeles 6-3.

Vancouver won’t be able to stop Edmonton’s stars entirely, but slowing their production might be sufficient for securing an upset. Outside of Edmonton’s Core Four, the Oilers are only average. Like most contenders, Edmonton has a top-heavy group.

That showed against the Kings when the rest of the forwards were solid, but not very imposing. The Oilers did receive some strong support outside the main stars with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scoring six points. Dylan Holloway and Evander Kane chipped in a couple of goals, too. But overall, there wasn’t much to write home about, with most of the team enjoying the star-studded show just like the rest of us.

Edmonton’s biggest vulnerability, though, is their defense — a mixed bag headlined by a divisive second pair that continues to be an anchor.

The top pair, where the steady Mattias Ekholm helps Bouchard play his best, is fantastic. That duo dominated in the first round, taking on the toughest assignments (while playing mostly with The Best Player In The World, mind you). The third pair was just OK, earning passable results playing the easiest minutes. But the Oilers have a big problem with Darnell Nurse and, especially, Cody Ceci.

In 82 minutes together, the second pair was shelled, earning just 39 percent of the expected goals while being outscored 4-2. The excuse of playing shutdown minutes doesn’t fly here, when their opponents were closer in quality to what the third pair faced than the top pair. They need to be better, and Nurse, in particular, can be — otherwise, this is a gaping hole that the Canucks can exploit.

The same can be said for Stuart Skinner if the Canucks continue to have the book on him. The Oilers have the goaltending edge in this series, mostly because the Canucks are starting a third-stringer. But it is notable that the Canucks made Skinner look like one himself this season, scoring 16 goals on 94 shots.

There’s a path to success for the Canucks if they can successfully target Edmonton’s flaws while playing at their peak form. We’ve seen what that looks like plenty of times this season and Vancouver is a scary team when it’s on.

The problem there is two-fold and it’s why the Canucks are decided underdogs. Whatever problems the Oilers have are even larger in scope on the Canucks’ side, exacerbated further by substandard offensive play in the opening round.

Think the Oilers are top-heavy? Vancouver’s top-four skaters combine for a plus-61 Net Rating — a very strong mark that would match up well against most other teams. But not Edmonton. This also puts the rest of the team at minus-31 combined.

The Oilers are heavy favorites, both in this series and to win it all, because they’ve subtly cleaned up the rest of the roster. While ranking first in Core Four value is what fuels their odds, being just average down the lineup may be the bigger feat. Only Carolina, Dallas and Vegas — teams known for their quality depth — appear stronger in that department. Meanwhile, the Canucks’ depth is tied for third worst among playoff teams.

Part of that is because Silovs is between the pipes instead of Demko. But it’s also because what’s around Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller, Brock Boeser and Quinn Hughes doesn’t look all that imposing — especially now that several forwards aren’t shooting 20 percent from the field.

If it’s a battle of power vs. power, the Oilers unsurprisingly look better. As good as Vancouver’s top four have been this year, they’re still not McDavid or Draisaitl.

But the battle of depth also veers in Edmonton’s favor. That showed itself in Vancouver’s series against a significantly weaker Predators team where, still, only Miller’s line was above water in chances. As the shutdown center, he’ll have a much heftier challenge. On defense, Vancouver’s second pair took on the toughest minutes but earned a sub-40 percent expected goals rate in the process. That number likely won’t improve against a tougher opponent. Perhaps a bigger role for Nikita Zadorov, who was outstanding against Nashville, could help them handle the job.

The biggest reason for concern after Round 1, though, is the play of Pettersson. The Canucks’ superstar center uncharacteristically had just three secondary assists and 48 percent of the expected goals and was outscored 3-1 at five-on-five. His Net Rating of minus-0.1 in the first round was 1.3 below expected.

To beat the Oilers in the playoffs, the Canucks need everyone above and beyond the top of their game. But that especially goes for their star players who need to match the best in the world.

It’s doable — Vancouver’s core group has grown into one worth fearing — but if even one performs below the mark, the Canucks’ chances become even dimmer. Pettersson performing at that level before the series even begins isn’t a good sign.

The key matchup

Connor McDavid vs. Quinn Hughes

One seems like a lock to win his first major NHL award and the other could wind up as a finalist once again. Hughes has already joined McDavid in one particular club, though; both are electrifying captains who are the focal points of each team’s offense. Everything runs through them.

There may not be a defenseman in the league who was a more dangerous shot-pass combo at five-on-five than Hughes; he was elite in both areas (12.4 shots/60, 7.4 shot assists/60, according to Corey Sznjader’s tracking data). In terms of scoring-chance creation, he was in elite company, too — among the Cale Makars, Roman Josis and Erik Karlssons of the world. All three have won Norris Trophies, and Hughes is on the verge of getting his first. Vancouver’s success starts with him.

McDavid, meanwhile, led the league in assists, primary assists and secondary assists. On a per-game basis, no player had a better Net Rating. (The Hart race would be a bit more interesting had he not missed a handful of games, but we digress.) McDavid’s extra emphasis on playmaking has carried over into the playoffs where he had 11 assists in five games against the Kings. Now, he’ll face individual talents a bit closer to his caliber.

The bottom line

On paper, it’s easy to see how McDavid’s Oilers are the easy favorite over a Canucks team backstopped by a third-string goaltender. But Vancouver’s shown all season why it shouldn’t be underestimated.

After a relatively slow Round 1, this is one second-round series that should really ramp things up.


How these projections workUnderstanding projection uncertainty 


Evolving HockeyNatural Stat TrickHockey ReferenceNHLAll Three Zones Tracking by Corey Sznajder

(Photo of Quinn Hughes and Connor McDavid: Derek Cain / Getty Images)