Are the Oilers Just McDavid?

Despite being held to just one assist in his last four games, Connor McDavid still leads the NHL in scoring with 39 points. Vladimir Tarasenko is hot on his heels with 37, while Sidney Crosby sits at third with 34 (he’s played in seven fewer games than McDavid). The Oilers have four wins and five losses so far in December and have slipped slightly in the standings, down to sixth in the conference. Still, for the Oilers, being in a playoff spot near Christmas is a huge deal. But does their inconsistent play coincide with McDavid’s inability to hit the back of the net? He’s got just one goal this month. There’s a notion that the team’s offence runs through number 97. Is that accurate?

As McDavid Goes, the Oilers Go?

Connor McDavid (97) and Antoine Roussel (21) (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)
(Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

Connor McDavid is leading the league in scoring. He’s got eight points in nine games this month. He’s not playing badly, but he’s been limited to just four shots over the past three games. McDavid has 12 goals on the season, he’s scored a goal in nine different games, and the Oilers have won six of those games. More often than not, when McDavid scores, the Oilers win the game. In games that he’s had at least one point (21 games), the Oilers have 12 wins. The Oilers have 16 wins on the season, and McDavid has been held pointless in just four of them.

The case can be made that McDavid is the catalyst of the Oilers’ offensive attack. He’s their cornerstone player. The question is, do the Oilers have other players who can pick up the slack if their captain isn’t scoring? We all know that championship teams are a sum of many great parts, and not just one guy carrying the load. Epic playoff runs are fueled by unsung heroes and role players doing their job to go along with the stars. Do the Oilers have enough horses to get through the trenches of the season and still be standing when spring comes around?

In Saturday’s win against the Lightning, McDavid didn’t register a point but he scored the shootout winner. There’s no doubt that Connor is “the man” in Edmonton. He’s their star, and he’ll be counted upon to drive the Oilers. So far, he seems fully capable of thriving in that role. But in terms of team success and postseason hopes, will McDavid be counted upon too much? He may be the fastest skater in the entire league. The opposing team can game plan all they want, but he’s going to get his points. But is that enough? Will secondary scoring be a problem for the Oilers as this season wears on?

Is McDavid a One-Man Band?

Sidney Crosby (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Sidney Crosby (often and always compared to McDavid) is still the best player in the NHL. (To take that title away from him, you have to earn it.) But even he can’t win games on his own. And while his leadership helped propel the Penguins to a Stanley Cup, it took a full team effort. He’s got 34 points so far this season. So does Evgeni Malkin. Phil Kessel is right behind them with 31. The Pens have 15 players with 10 or more points on the season. Conversely, the Oilers have 10 players with 10 or more points.

McDavid leads the way with 39 points, and the closest teammate to him is Leon Draisaitl with 28. The interesting thing is that the Oilers have scored 95 goals this season, fourth-best in the league (the Penguins are ranked second with 107). It’s entirely possible that there’s a bit of a false narrative floating around that the Oilers are nothing without McDavid. Then again, if you ask anyone who is the most important player on the team, it would be McDavid hands down.

Perhaps it’s more than just producing points. Perhaps it’s his presence that makes all the difference. You can’t replace his skill, his speed, or his hockey sense. Can we say that the Oilers are more than just McDavid, while in the same breath say they would be lost without him? He doesn’t even have the most goals on the team (that distinction belongs to Draisaitl), but he’s an assist machine. He’s got 27, and the next closest teammate is Jordan Eberle with 15. So we can conclude that he creates a tonne of offence, even if he’s not the one to finish the play.

Connor McDavid (97), Milan Lucic (27) and Leon Draisaitl (29) (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)
Connor McDavid (97), Milan Lucic (27) and Leon Draisaitl (29). (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

How Do the Oilers Look Without McDavid?

This article, written on Nov. 29, used analytics to find out how the Oilers perform with and without McDavid. Not surprisingly, they play better when he’s on the ice. They have more shot attempts, and they outscore their opponents at a higher clip. But as the article outlines, that tends to be the case with most teams. The Penguins have more shot attempts with Crosby on the ice, but their goal-scoring remains the same because of other highly-skilled players on their other lines.

The San Jose Sharks are a worse team in terms of shot attempts when Joe Thornton is on the bench, as are the Los Angeles Kings without Anze Kopitar. The Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues, like the Penguins, have enough depth to compensate for their number one centres being off the ice. The Oilers aren’t alone in seeing a drop-off without their top guy. For some reason, it “feels” as though they’re so much worse without him. Part of that could be the poor shooting percentage of players like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, for example.

A couple of days ago, Yahoo Sports suggested that McDavid is already the runaway winner for the Hart Trophy because of his overall effect on the team. Here are some of the tidbits:

The Oilers are scoring almost 60 percent of the goals with McDavid on the ice at 5-on-5. McDavid’s on-ice goal differential is plus-20 in all situations. When he’s off, Edmonton is minus-2. McDavid simply doesn’t have a lot of help. Only two other Oilers are even north of 20 points, and both of them are on McDavid’s line. Great players having great seasons are almost always going to be significantly better than their teams when they’re off the ice. But the WOWY gaps for Tarasenko and Crosby…are mere divots in comparison with the Grand Canyons separating most of McDavid’s on/off stats.

And the overall summary of the McDavid-led Oilers:

Even as McDavid is an offensive juggernaut, you can see that the Oilers are still a mess defensively. They give up too many chances with or without McDavid on the ice, too many shots, too many goals. This one player helps — and helps a lot — across the board on these fronts, as you might have anticipated, but the fact is that even having the best player in the world, and having that player turn in a phenomenal season, isn’t enough to keep the Oilers’ own-zone play from being a little mediocre.

If the Oilers make the playoffs, and McDavid leads the league in scoring, the case will convincingly be made that he should win the league MVP (unless Crosby continues his otherworldly season and scores 60 goals). What seems abundantly clear, however, is that not only does the Oilers’ level of play drop off when McDavid is on the bench; their defensive play overall continues to fall short. The Oilers are right in the thick of the playoff hunt. But they’ll have to rely on more than just their captain to keep them there.