After more than four months without hockey, our team of RotoWire experts is here to get you back up to speed ahead of the eight play-in series kicking off Aug. 1 in Toronto and Edmonton. Via eight preview pieces over eight days, we get into positional breakdowns, injury updates and series predictions to help you chart the course for your frozen fantasy journey this summer!
No. 5 Edmonton Oilers (37-25-9, 2nd in Pacific, .585 points percentage)
No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks (32-30-8, 7th in Central, .514 points percentage)
Oilers: At forward, the Oilers boast both the league's most talented player in Connor McDavid and this year's likely MVP in Leon Draisaitl. The duo combined for an absurd 77 goals and 130 assists in 135 regular-season games, and were split up between Edmonton's top-two lines, giving the team the ability to impose a relentless onslaught of offensive pressure at even strength. On the first line, McDavid is complemented on the right side by big-bodied winger Zack Kassian, who was able to chip in 15 goals and 34 points in 59 games this season, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who had his best year yet from a production standpoint with 22 goals and 39 helpers in 65 contests. On the second line, Draisaitl is flanked by breakout rookie Kailer Yamamoto, who racked up 11 goals and 26 points in just 27 games after being promoted to the NHL full time in late December, and either Andreas Athanasiou or Tyler Ennis — who combined for an unimpressive six points in 18 games after being picked up by the Oilers at the trade deadline.
Blackhawks: The Blackhawks were plagued by several down years up front, most notably with Alex DeBrincat, who only managed 18 goals and 45 points in 70 games after racking up 41 goals and 35 assists a year ago. However, Patrick Kane was as productive as ever, lighting the lamp 33 times while adding 51 helpers in 70 contests. Jonathan Toews also had another strong campaign following his career-best 81-point output in 2018-19, totaling 18 goals and 60 points in 70 games, and first-year winger Dominik Kubalik broke out to the tune of 30 goals and 16 assists in 68 games while skating mostly on the third line. The rest of Chicago's top nine is rounded out by decent, yet unspectacular offensive producers including Brandon Saad, Dylan Strome, Kirby Dach and Alexander Nylander, none of which figure to play a pivotal role, at least in terms of scoring output.
The Blue Line
Oilers: On the back end, the Oilers are led by Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse. Klefbom missed a little more than two weeks of action with a shoulder injury toward the end of the regular season, but he was still able to finish the campaign with five goals and 34 points in 62 appearances, while Nurse fell just short of that mark with five scores and 28 helpers in 71 contests. With the exception of Ethan Bear, who recorded five goals and 21 points in 71 games as a rookie, the rest of Edmonton's blue-line group, including Adam Larsson, Kris Russell and Caleb Jones, didn't do much of note from an offensive standpoint this year, and instead will be relied upon for their defensive contributions against Chicago.
Blackhawks: The Blackhawks didn't get much from their blue line in terms of offensive production during the regular season. Two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith led the way with 27 points in 61 games, with Connor Murphy ranking second among the team's blueliners with just 19 points in 58 contests. Rookie Adam Boqvist will skate alongside Keith on the team's top pairing against Edmonton, and Olli Maatta will round out the club's top four alongside Murphy on the second pairing. Calvin de Haan, who's making his way back from shoulder surgery, is expected to form Chicago's bottom pairing with Brent Seabrook, who happens to be returning from a number of surgeries of his own. Those two would generally be getting top-four minutes, but coach Jeremy Colliton will almost certainly shelter them to try and avoid further injury issues. This isn't a blue-line corps with much to offer in terms of quickness, which isn't a recipe for success against an Oilers squad loaded with speed up front.
Between the Pipes
Oilers: Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith split the load in goal pretty evenly during the regular season, with Koskinen making 38 appearances to Smith's 39. Koskinen posted a 2.75 GAA and .917 save percentage over that span, which is significantly better than the 2.95 and .902 marks Smith put up during the regular season, but at this point it isn't clear who'll get the nod for Game 1. Either way, Edmonton's goaltending won't be its biggest strength during the qualifying round.
Blackhawks: The biggest story heading into this series for the Blackhawks will be the uncertainty surrounding their goaltending situation. With just 11 days left before Game 1 against the Oilers, starter Corey Crawford has yet to participate in (or even appear at) training camp. Due to the NHL's new injury update policy, the team hasn't shed any light on the reason for Crawford's absence, instead simply assigning him the generic label of "unfit to play." If he's unable to go against the Oilers, which is appearing more likely with each passing day, the starting job will fall to either Malcolm Subban or Collin Delia. Neither option would give Chicago a realistic shot at upsetting Edmonton. Delia went 6-4-3 with a 3.61 GAA and .908 save percentage in 16 top-level appearances this season, while Subban went 9-7-3 with a 3.17 GAA and .890 save percentage in 21 appearances with the Golden Knights before being dealt to the Blackhawks as part of the Robin Lehner deal.
Oilers: Trade deadline acquisition Mike Green has opted out of the playoffs, but that shouldn't have any impact on the Oilers, as the veteran blueliner only appeared in two games with his new team before missing the final seven matches of the shortened regular season with a knee injury. On the flip side, Edmonton will be getting Joakim Nygard back after he missed the final 21 games of the season with a hand injury, but he'll be nothing more than a rotational bottom-six option during the playoffs.
Blackhawks: Again, the biggest injury concern for the Blackhawks heading into the postseason is Crawford. He was playing at an elite level down the stretch, and at full strength, Chicago would be a far more formidable opponent for Edmonton. However, without him, the Hawks will have virtually no shot. Andrew Shaw won't be available due to lingering concussion issues, and Zack Smith is done for the year after undergoing back surgery in February. Shaw's feistiness and ability to play up and down the lineup will be missed, but Smith was probably going to be on the outside looking in even if he was healthy heading into postseason play. On the flip side, Chicago will be getting back de Haan and Seabrook, both of whom underwent major surgeries earlier in the year, which should help solidify the team's bottom pairing.
AJ Scholz: Even with a healthy Crawford, this was going to be a tall task for Chicago to pull off the upset over McDavid and Draisaitl. Now, the team may be forced to utilize career backup Subban or the untested Delia. This series won't last long. Edmonton in three.
Kyle Riley: Without Crawford, the Blackhawks would need to outmatch the Oilers' firepower by scoring 4-5 goals in three out of five games in order to take this series, and I simply can't see that happening. If Crawford's unable to go, McDavid and Draisaitl will feast on whoever's given the starting nod between Subban and Delia, taking the series with relative ease in the process. Oilers in four.
Jordan Buckley: Sometimes my mentality can be a little bit old school, which gives me no choice but to remind everyone that Chicago has a whopping 18 (!) Stanley Cups between seven players (Kane, Toews, Seabrook, Keith, Crawford, Maatta, Saad). That's a lot of battle-tested experience. But the NHL is ever changing, and in today's game more than ever, speed kills. I'd never rule out Chicago completely because of its pedigree, but Edmonton's offense is truly formidable and the Hawks' back end isn't exactly fleet of foot these days. Edmonton in four.
Jason Chen: This series boils down to star power, featuring four of the last five Art Ross winners. If Crawford doesn't play, it's no contest — the Oilers should win easily despite a thin defense and shaky goaltending. What the Blackhawks have is a little more offensive depth and experience, but, as they say, it's a young man's game. Oilers in four.
Evan Berofsky: McDavid's first postseason appearance in three years looks promising, especially with teammate Draisaitl's progression into superstar status. The Blackhawks can still roll out Kane and Toews, but the aging back end won't be able to withstand the Oilers' potent offense. Oilers in four.
Jan Levine: Throw out the seedlings and 11-point differential. If Chicago has a healthy Crawford in net, the Blackhawks have a chance to spring an upset. If not, Edmonton should roll despite the playoff experience of Toews and Kane. The Oilers have their dynamic duo of McDavid and Leon but don't sleep on Yamamoto. Coach Dave Tippett has to decide if Smith or Koskinen will man the nets, but regardless of who starts, Edmonton should prevail. Oilers in four.