Only disaster could hold the Edmonton Oilers back from a playoff spot, though the seedings are very much a wide open race at this point. Given the bunched nature of seeds, the Oilers simultaneously are three points behind the conference lead and three points clear of the second wildcard spot.
Including the Calgary Flames, who are barely clinging to hopes, these nine teams have separated themselves from the bottom half of the conference quite comfortably. That being said all of these teams have had some rough stretches and since added new pieces to help address areas of concern.
Simply put, the West is wild, and all bets are off come playoff time. All four first-round series should be even tougher to predict than usual. Divisional teams are by far the more probable opponents, arbitrarily three times more likely before factoring in how the teams might perform down the stretch.
Most likely opponents being Pacific Division teams
Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings are a strong possession team, with stout defence, some key veterans, and an embarrassment of young talent deserving of more opportunity. If any of the Kings go down there is an interesting option behind, and if any of the youngsters can take a step it will make the Kings all the more dangerous.
We’ve seen some bubblings from the likes of Gabe Vilardi, Sean Durzi, Quinton Byfield, Arthur Kaliyev, Tobias Bjornfot, and Jordan Spence at the NHL level, let alone some hopes from a strong AHL affiliate. Perhaps blowing up their $10M+ goalie tandem, Jonathan Quick and Cal Petersen, was the best answer, and the new tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Pheonix Copley can finally give the team more saves.
The Kings present a unique challenge given their profile, a fact that Oilers fans can attest to after last year’s seven-game series that saw the Oilers fall behind three games to two. Currently the Oilers are 0–2 against the Kings. Anze Kopitar and Philip Danault are likely the best one-two punch of defensive centres league-wide, a rare bouquet of Selke candidates that can help keep Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl at bay, even when on separate lines.
Vegas Golden Knights
The Vegas Golden Knights are poised to return to the postseason after missing for the first time in 2021–22. The Knights are a heavy team with a great deal of experience, but are missing star winger Mark Stone. The goaltending situation, despite the addition of Jonathan Quick, does not look great on paper, though the group has held up well. The Oilers have won both games against the Knights thus far. They will face off several times down the stretch of the regular season, which might set the stage for a potential playoff matchup for the two teams.
Once a draft rival of McDavid, Jack Eichel is poised to make his playoff debut. Almost a decade after their draft, the pair of centres might well have their first meaningful on ice head-to-head.
In some ways the Seattle Kraken are quite similar to the Kings, boasting incredible depth, strong performance in scoring chance metrics, and sub par goaltending. The forward group has improved, especially with the budding star of Matty Beniers, but the blueline has come together much more than last season, with Vince Dunn finding a new level of play.
Perhaps the lack of deadline buying tells us that the team is cautiously optimistic about their newfound playoff contention. They certainly haven’t taken the same expansion approach as Vegas did, though with huge improvement at the NHL level, a strong AHL team, and not to mention Shane Wright, the Kraken program is coming together nicely.
The forward depth of the Kraken is the key thing to watch for in a prospective series against the Oilers. All four lines can bring skill and energy, meaning that the Oilers should expect relentless checking on the forecheck and through the neutral zone. The Oilers blueline will be under duress, stressed to make sound decisions on breakouts.
A Central Division opponent is less likely
The Dallas Stars are a popular pick as the Western Conference’s most complete team, with impact players at each position. Jake Oettinger is likely the Western Conference’s best goalie outside of Connor Hellebuyck, Miro Heiskanen is a perennial Norris candidate, and Jason Robertson is one of the league’s best skaters.
If the deadline additions of Evgenii Dadonov and Max Domi can spark more scoring from the middle six forwards, the Stars will have a great chance at a deep run. There are some dangerous players in this group including veterans Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, as well as a rookie with legitimate scoring talent in Wyatt Johnston.
While Oettinger can (and has) stolen playoff series before, the biggest matchup here will be the Oilers ability to contain the Stars top line of Robertson, Roope Hintz, and Joe Pavelski. The trio has been one of the best lines in the league for the past three seasons and could easily dominate a series if the Oilers aren’t careful. Of note the Stars power play has decimated the Oilers in their games so far this season. The Oilers are 1–1 against the Stars this season with another game down the line.
The Minnesota Wild are their usual selves, on brand as a strong defensive team. This makes life much easier for their goaltenders, where Filip Gustavsson has authored a breakout season. With some standout offensive players, most notably Kirill Kaprizov as well as the budding Matthew Boldy, the Wild have enough scoring talent to keep opponents on their toes. Perhaps the deadline additions of John Klingberg, Oskar Sundqvist, and Gustav Nyquist can add enough of an offensive flair to make a difference.
The defensive backbone of the Wild begins with two outstanding blueliners, Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin. Often deployed on separate pairings, navigating these matchups would be a huge storyline in a potential playoff series between the Wild and the Oilers.
The reigning champs are a bit deflated from the superb form they carried to a Cup win last season, and have had their tough stretches through the year. The Colorado Avalanches might be heating up at just the right time, now in striking distance of another Central Division crown.
The biggest loss from last season is Nazem Kadri, though the Avs have been without captain Gabe Landeskog for the entire season. The hope is that Landeskog is soon to return. Still, a ridiculous amount of skill highlights the lineup, punctuated by clear stylistic preferences for depth, size on the back end and speed up front.
The biggest gap in last year’s Western Conference Final between the Avs and Oilers was the respective strengths of the bluelines. Cale Makar is easily one of the league’s best players, though the Avs boast a lot of puck moving talent with Samuel Girard and Bowen Byram in the fold as well. The Oilers will have to find a way to disrupt this group to help turn the flow of play in their direction should the teams meet again.
The Winnipeg Jets are faltering a bit as of late, but have had a nice bounce back after missing the playoffs last season. The Jets have been a bit better at controlling play this season, but still rely heavily on their goaltending and shooting talent to win.
The Jets have a lot of size and physicality in their lineup, which should be a handful in the relaxed rules of the postseason. A few additions up front might help give the offence a boosted punch with Nino Niederreiter and Vladislav Namestnikov in the fold.
The key to beating the Jets will be getting to goalie Connor Hellebuyck. In its own right this is a key matchup, but finding a way to outmanoeuvre a physical blueline would certainly increase the Oilers chances of doing such. Josh Morrissey has seen his icetime continue to skyrocket as the season has progressed, getting to the Norris candidate would significantly hamper the Jets entire operation.
Battle of Alberta unlikely to happen in the first round
The Calgary Flames are a really strong possession team marred with bad results in scoring and goaltending. The struggles in net have been attributed to Jacob Markstrom being overworked last season, or not being an elite goalie to begin with, regressing back from a career season in 2021–22.
Up front some of the scoring issues have been linked to settling for low danger shots or not creating enough movement before shots with more passes. Jonathan Huberdeau has taken a lot of heat, perhaps to be expected with a big money extension kicking in next season. Offensively, this bluntness might lend itself to playoff hockey if the Flames are able to put together a strong final stretch, along with one of the eight teams ahead of them crumbling.
Markstrom’s struggles might well have started in the playoff series against the Oilers last season. Continuing to haunt the Flames netminder would be crucial to repeating the series win. The Flames blueline is strong, yet none of their defencemen have had much success at containing McDavid. Historically, Nazem Kadri has done fairly well against McDavid, so if the Flames were to get a win in that matchup it would go a long way for them.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire