McDavid’s Elevated Play is What Tortorella Said He Needed to Do

The Edmonton Oilers punched their ticket to the Western Conference Final when they eliminated the Calgary Flames, winning the series 4-1. They were viewed as the underdogs, and despite the dominance of Connor McDavid throughout the playoffs, it was a complete team effort to get them to the conference finals — a position the club hasn’t been in since 2006.

The Oilers, and McDavid, are finally seeing playoff success, but it wasn’t a smooth ride getting there. The Hockey Writers’ D. Edward Bochon explained the team had a regular season full of injuries, COVID-19, winning streaks, and long losing streaks. Former head coach Dave Tippett was fired, and the club promoted new head coach Jay Woodcroft and assistant coach Dave Manson from their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate in Bakersfield.

With the chatter that surrounded the Oilers throughout the season, there was a take that went viral from former head coach and current television analyst John Tortorella, telling McDavid to “shut up.” At the time, the captain wasn’t receiving nearly enough calls from officials, although it’s now a moot point, considering he was second in the league in penalties drawn (50) in the regular season.

What stood out; however, is that he stated for McDavid to see playoff success, he has to change his game. At the time, he received backlash for telling the best player in the game how he should play hockey, but so far, the captain is putting on a postseason performance for the ages. McDavid’s game has evolved to a level that most couldn’t have imagined, and it now seems like Tortorella was on the right track with his bold take.  

Tortorella’s Take at the Time About McDavid Seemed Absurd

Let’s revisit what Tortorella said back in November 2021 on an ESPN panel. He stated, “I do think he has to change his game a bit. Not turn into a checker, obviously. He’s talked about culture, he’s talked about standards, he’s talked about winning. You’re not just going to fill the net during the playoffs and outscore teams. You have to play on the other side of the puck. You have to have that business-type attitude of, ‘Nothing’s going to bother me, no matter how you’re going to check me.” He added, “Don’t talk about it, just play hard, play through it, but the other side of the puck is that important too come playoff time.”

The ”you’re not just going to fill the net” part will be discussed later on, but let’s break down his belief that McDavid needed to change his game. I disagreed widely with his statements at the time, because I felt that McDavid was playing well on the other side of the puck. It was reported that after the Oilers were ousted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2020 play-in round, the captain wanted the coaching staff to pick apart his two-way game and show him where he wasn’t up to snuff. He took constructive criticism head-on, and it was noted that he watched hours of his clips in the defensive zone and compared it to the NHL’s best defensive players, to transform his own game (from ‘The Biggest Transformation I’ve Seen in an Elite Player: How Connor McDavid Took the Next Step,’ The Athletic, 5/17/21).

While Tortorella said he “wouldn’t want to turn him into a checker,” he was hinting that the captain should raise his physicality and stressed the importance of playing on the other side of the puck. He was alluding to the importance of defensive awareness and not thinking about run-and-gun offense 24/7. Again, the comment seemed puzzling at the time, because the Hockey Writer’s Jim Parsons also reported that McDavid improved defensively by a significant margin while continuing to break the charts offensively.

Leon Draisaitl Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers
Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

That said, when Tortorella uttered his comments regarding the best player in the world needing to change his game, it seemed asinine. But little did we know that McDavid had yet another level, as shown this postseason. Was this the change in his game that Tortorella was speaking of?

He currently shares the league lead in points with teammate Leon Draisaitl, and he’s shown his “business-type attitude” all postseason. His offensive accolades have received all the glory this postseason, but his defensive game has to be given praise as well. What’s remarkable is his willingness to get greasy and play physical like an elite third line checker, essentially doing “the dirty work” to win, at the same time, putting the puck in the back of the opposition’s net, at will.

He’s currently third on the team in hits (39), and third on the team in hits taken (31). Yes, he plays top minutes on the team most nights, but it just shows he’s not shying away from physicality whenever he’s on the ice. He’s first on the team in takeaways (13), meaning when he doesn’t have the puck, he’s putting in the extra gear to get it back and not cheating for breakaways or relying on a “Hail Mary” pass from his defensemen. He’s also second on the team in faceoff percentage (FO%) at 51.18%, behind Derek Ryan (54.64 FO%).

McDavid’s Play Away From the Puck Has Grown to a New Level

McDavid has willed his team to victory throughout the playoffs and has set the tone most nights not only with his offensive wizardry but setting the tone physically. With the Oilers’ season on the line in the first round, in Game 7 against the Los Angeles Kings, McDavid came out of the gates flying (like he does most nights), and threw a big hit 22 seconds into the game on defender Sean Durzi. He sent the crowd at Rogers Place into a frenzy en route to a 2-0 win.

Heading into the series against the Calgary Flames, the entire province was buzzing, and there was even a friendly wager between the two cities’ mayors. However, when Game 1 finally came, it seemed like both Alberta teams couldn’t handle the nerves, with an anomalous 9-5 final score, but the Oilers’ captain came prepared for battle. He recorded a four-point night, but also led the team with five hits. Overall, he finished the series with 18 hits in five games against his Alberta rivals. In contrast, McDavid only threw 15 hits in 13 games in the Oilers’ last lengthy playoff run in 2016-2017.

When Tortorella said about McDavid, “Nothing’s going to bother me, no matter how you’re going to check me,” I couldn’t help but think of his goal in Game 2 against the Flames. The Oilers were down by two in the second period, and the 6-foot-6 behemoth defender, Nikita Zadorov, lined up the Oilers’ captain for a big hit. McDavid bounced off of him, made a short pass to Duncan Keith, who passed back, and the NHL’s regular-season point leader absolutely froze Jacob Markstrom for a highlight-reel goal. That specific goal was the turning point of the series, as the Oilers were able to light the lamp with ease afterward.

To top it off, there’s no better example of Tortorella’s comments to “Play on the right side of the puck” than McDavid’s play on his game-winner in overtime in Game 5. In the extra frame, Darnell Nurse dumped the puck into the Flames’ zone. McDavid hustled towards the puck and beat every player, aside from Noah Hanafin. The pressure from his forecheck was enough to impede Hanafin’s pass up the boards. The puck ended up on Draisaitl’s stick, who made a swift pass to the captain, and he ended the series with a nice low shot. The video of him shooting the puck to beat Markstrom will be applauded for years to come, but what won’t likely be shown is the clip of his dogged effort a few seconds before to chase the puck down, which created the entire scoring opportunity.

The Oilers Have Been Able to Fill the Net With Ease

Although Tortorella’s take on McDavid needing to change his game seems to be accurate for now, his statement of, “You’re not just going to fill the net during the playoffs and outscore teams,” hasn’t aged well. The Oilers are scoring at will and lead the NHL in goals this postseason with 52, currently beating the Colorado Avalanche, who are second in that category, by nine goals.

McDavid himself is having a legendary playoff run and is in contention for the Conn Smythe trophy. He became the first player in NHL history to record nine multi-point games within the first 10 contests in a single postseason. He’s currently tied with teammate Draisaitl for the points lead with 26 points in 12 games. In comparison, Sidney Crosby had 27 points in 24 games when he won the Conn Smythe in 2017. Moreover, he’s currently on a 52 point-pace if Edmonton reaches the finals, which would beat Wayne Gretzky’s 47 points in a single postseason. To sum it up, TSN has also called him “Undoubtedly the Best Player Ever.”

Related: Oilers’ Resiliency Showing Up in 2022 Playoffs

He’s setting records and being compared to the all-time greats, with some of the best players the game has ever seen saluting his efforts. Former player and 684 goal scorer, Teemu Selanne has chimed in, recently tweeting that McDavid is willing to win games by himself, and acknowledging that he’s the best player on the planet. Jaromir Jagr — who is second in NHL all-time points — casually responded that he agrees with Selanne. All in all, it didn’t seem imaginable that McDavid could reach a higher, more complete level, but maybe Tortorella, who recently interviewed for the head coaching job in Philadelphia, was onto something when he suggested the Oilers’ captain make adjustments to his game, less than seven months ago.

The Western Conference Final matchup between the Oilers and Avalanche should be filled with high-powered offence with the likes of McDavid, Draisaitl, Nathan Mackinnon, and Cale Makar. That said, to tame the juggernauts that were atop the Western Conference in the regular season, the Oilers’ will have to continue to play a disciplined and complete game, with their captain at the wheel.

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