Connor McDavid Becoming a Complete Player is Key to Oilers Success

In the seven years that Connor McDavid has been in the NHL, he’s achieved so much on a personal level — three Art Ross Trophies, three Ted Lindsay Awards, two Hart Memorial Trophies, and four NHL First Team All-Stars to his name. With everything he’s accomplished, there’s no denying he’s the most dangerous offensive player in the league.

At the same time, he’s not the most complete player— defined as someone who excels in the offensive zone and on defense. There are still areas in his game that he could improve defensively. The Professional Hockey Writer’s Association would also agree that after their votes were cast last season, McDavid finished 27th for the Frank E. Selke Trophy, awarded to the top defensive forward in the NHL.

When asked about the NHL scoring race at his media avail during the All-Star weekend, McDavid said, “I truthfully do not care. I don’t care about the scoring race. I don’t really pay attention to where guys are at. I want to win games, I want to win games in Edmonton and with the team.”

This Might Be the “Steve Yzerman” Moment of McDavid’s Career

With McDavid stating that scoring races don’t matter, and with new coach Jay Woodcroft behind the bench, this could be a fresh start for the Oilers’ captain to reinvent himself, to truly become a complete player. If he doesn’t care about personal points, maybe this is his career’s “Steve Yzerman” turning point? For those unfamiliar with the reference, Yzerman started his career in 1983, and he was a perennial 100-point player. However, his Detroit Red Wings team didn’t have much success, either failing to qualify for the playoffs or exiting in the first round (much like McDavid’s experiences).

Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Prior to the 1994-1995 season, head coach Scotty Bowman implemented a new defensive system. When Yzerman arrived at camp, he realized if he bought into the system, he’d be sacrificing personal statistics for the good of the team. He bought in, and that season, the team reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1966, ultimately losing to the New Jersey Devils. In the years that followed, he accepted the new responsibility and sacrificed personal accolades for team success— winning Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998, and 2002. It’s worth noting, however, that his last Stanley Cup win consisted of 10 future Hockey Hall of Famers on the team.

McDavid Has Taken Strides to Become a Complete Player

While McDavid does not have near the caliber of teammates throughout his lineup, a commitment to become a complete player has proven successful for greats in the past. It’s an intangible the Oilers’ captain should strive for. In fact, he acknowledged the need to get better defensively last season. As the Athletic’s Daniel Nugent-Bowman reported, McDavid wanted to work on several areas of his defensive game. He watched hours of video of his play in the defensive zone while comparing it to the premier defensive players in the NHL. At the same time, he asked the coaching staff to criticize his defensive play and demanded they pick it apart (from “The Biggest Transformation I’ve Ever Seen in an Elite Player: How Connor McDavid Took the Next Step,” The Athletic, 05/17/21).

Associate Coach Glen Gulutzan said he’d often cheat for offense and, at times, glide through the defensive zone to keep speed instead of stopping. He wanted to provide more support to his defensemen and give them an outlet to pass to. He wanted to engage in more battles, backcheck more aggressively and improve on faceoffs.

This season he’s improved in those areas, especially in the faceoff circle with his career-best 52.6% faceoff percentage (FO%). At this point in his career, however, the attention to detail in all those areas has to be game in and game out. The Oilers have struggled with consistency this season, coming out of the gate 9-1 to start and went 2-11-2 in December and January. To be successful in the league, you need to be consistent and can’t afford to take nights off. There are still nights where McDavid might abandon a man in the slot to cheat for offense. There are nights when he seems too fatigued to backcheck as hard as he’s attacked. If he truly does not care about scoring titles, the attention to detail in these areas needs to be consistent.

Following the loss to the Chicago Blackhawks last Wednesday, the Captain said post-game that they need to be better as a group and specifically said the forwards need to backcheck better. But that effort starts at the top — when your best player, and arguably the best player in the world, is putting in that extra effort — it’s contagious, and it can trickle down from the first line to the fourth line players.

Great Players Before McDavid Changed Their Game to Cement Their Legacy

There have been many great players before McDavid whose legacy was in question before winning a Stanley Cup. Players like Yzerman, Mike Modano, Alexander Ovechkin, and Sidney Crosby had to change their game to become complete players to win championships.

Before winning the Cup, ESPN’s Joe McDonald wrote a column about Ovechkin as one of the greatest offensive players of all time and ended it saying, “unless he wins a Stanley Cup, Ovechkin’s numbers won’t matter.” It took Ovechkin 13 years to win a Cup, but the season he did, he bought into the defensive identity his team was implementing. His coach at the time, Barry Trotz, said, “this is the most complete you’ve seen of Ovi.” Once the Capitals’ captain finally won a championship, many felt that his legacy was 100% cemented.

The Oilers’ captain faces the same questions about his legacy as each season passes in his career. Will McDavid ever win a Stanley Cup? Or will he go down as one of the all-time greats who weren’t able to hoist Lord Stanley? As it stands now, we’re seven years into McDavid’s career, and his team is on the outside looking in at a playoff spot midway through the season.

Related: Oilers’ McDavid Shows New Level of Leadership in All-Star Interview

But there’s a new sense of optimism in Oil Country. The Oilers just hired a new coach in hopes of giving the team a new voice and a mid-season re-set. This can be a pivotal moment in McDavid’s career, redefining his game and becoming a complete player — just like many of the all-time greats before him.

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