Adversity is a funny thing in sports. Some teams crumple at the mere sight of it, surrendering the moment those lengthy odds are placed before them. Others choose to pick themselves up off the mat and stand tall, refusing to wilt in the face of unfavourable circumstances.
The Edmonton Oilers lean towards the former, unfortunately, as those plucky misfits from the City of Champions currently appear unable to overcome the sullen demeanour of their former-Hart, Art Ross and Ted Lindsay Award-winning captain, Connor McDavid.
That, my friends, is what we in the biz call a “joke.”
McDavid is obviously the NHL’s undisputed best player. He’s hockey’s Michael Jordan, albeit without the alleged gambling interest (that we know of, at least). Who cares if a McDavid-centric “Last Dance” would be the most boring eight hours of television to ever grace the small screen? The guy flat out scores and manages to do so while also lugging around the collection of paper mâché and loose dryer lint management has forced him to call a supporting cast.
So with the Oilers on the brink of elimination while McDavid continues to tear up the score sheet, here are three things to pin Edmonton’s struggles on that aren’t its captain’s unwillingness to throw a public temper tantrum.
New Rule: The next analyst to call Mike Smith an “elite puck-moving goaltender” on live television should have their credentials revoked.
Seriously. We’re not in 2012 anymore. I’m writing this with a mask on, for Pete’s sake. That should be evidence enough.
Give credit where credit’s due, though. Smith was indeed a valued member of the “Martin Brodeur Third Defenceman Club” once upon a time, capturing the hearts and minds of the hockey world with his courageous forages outside of his own crease. Those little flourishes were great — relics of a bygone era when goaltenders were daring enough to practically pose a threat to jump up into the rush.
But the past seven years? Well, those haven’t exactly featured the same degree of success for Smith, with the veteran handing out enough charitable goals to his opponents that you could swear he’s able to write them off on his taxes.
And yet, even with a near-decade-long track record of clumsiness, Dave Tippett boldly handed Smith the start in Game 1 of the Oilers’ best-of-five play-in series.
McDavid, who scored the game’s opening goal, could have popped a blood vessel from sheer rage and still couldn’t have made up for whatever the heck Smith thought he was doing there. The Oilers proceeded to drop Game 1 by a score of 6-4. Smith allowed five goals on 23 shots.
All was not lost, though. After rebounding with a statement 6-3 victory in Game 2 after turning to Mikko Koskinen in net, the universe seemingly remembered that he’s a 32-year-old goaltender who was given a three-year contract extension worth $4.5 million per year in the middle of a rookie season in which he posted a .906 save percentage by a lame duck GM who was two weeks out from his overwhelmingly anticipated firing.
Take a wild guess at what happened next.
The Blackhawks took Game 3, Koskinen allowed four goals on 25 shots (including this doozy) and the Oilers left the ice in their own building on the brink of elimination against the 23rd place team in the NHL.
But, hey, Connor said a swear! Now that’s progress.
2. Supporting Cast
Aside from finding a suitable urinal situation for their home arena, the most pressing issue plaguing the Oilers throughout McDavid’s entire tenure thus far has been surrounding their superstar with a suitable supporting cast.
The three head coaches and two general managers he’s been subjected to in that time simply haven’t done it.
Now, having a generational talent at your disposal gives you some leeway. Notice how I didn’t use flashy adjectives like “stellar” or “elite” to describe McDavid’s ideal running mates. Those fellas merely need to be suitable — capable of standing in place and gobbling up net-front rebounds like real-life hungry, hungry hippos.
That shouldn’t be too hard, right? Well, reader, do I have news for you.
McDavid’s most common linemate throughout the three qualifying games to this point has been Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Which is great. Nugent-Hopkins is exactly the type of player you want to insulate a star like McDavid (we’re just going to ignore that Nuge was a first-overall pick himself).
Connor’s next two most frequent counterparts, though? Those would be Josh Archibald and Zack Kassian, the latter of whom is sitting on a sparkling 28% CF/60 at 5v5 alongside McDavid. Oh, and in typical Oilers fashion, management also handed Kassian a brand new four-year contract extension midway through the season at an AAV of $3.2 million. In the 14 games after signing on the dotted line, Kassian racked up a whopping six points, got suspended and remains scoreless throughout the first three qualifying games.
And that’s playing with McDavid, too — the very thing that even earned him that contract in the first place.
This is all said even without mentioning the pair of splashes Ken Holland made at this year’s trade deadline. At this point in the series, Edmonton has received precisely two combined points from Tyler Ennis and Andreas Athanasiou, both of which have come from Ennis, who left midway through last night’s game with an apparent injury that may keep him out long-term. Athanasiou, whose services were secured for a second-round pick and Sam Gagner by the “win-now” Oilers, is scoreless.
Of course, one can only imagine how well the Oilers’ forward corps would be doing if their captain threw a few water bottles on the ice to set the tone.
3. The Penalty Kill
When you have McDavid on your roster, his mere presence gives you a number of things you no longer need to worry about. The power play, for instance, is one of those things, with the Oilers waking up this morning atop the Stanley Cup qualifiers leaderboard with five power-play goals through three games.
Alas, every rose has its thorn. Hockey is a two-way sport, after all, meaning that teams must also prevent goals in addition to scoring them. Crazy, right? The Oilers aren’t so great at that last part.
Edmonton currently sits with a penalty kill efficiency rating of 75 percent, putting it 17th out of the 24 teams in the qualifying round. The Oilers have also achieved this while ranking first in shorthanded time on ice, spending a whopping 23:57 with at least one player in the penalty box.
McDavid, mind you, is only responsible for two of those 24 minutes thanks to a minor penalty in Game 1 in which he factored in on all three of his team’s goals.
The penalty kill also happens to be the one facet of the game — aside from goaltending, that is — that McDavid doesn’t heavily participate in. The perennial MVP candidate has logged only 31 seconds of shorthanded ice time to this point. The Oilers did not allow a goal in those 31 seconds.
So, to just get this completely straight: The Edmonton Oilers and their two mediocre aging goaltenders — one who thinks he’s a defenceman and another who can’t stop pucks shot by them — a supporting cast littered with underachieving middle-to-bottom-six tweeners making top-six money, and a penalty kill sitting in the bottom-third of the league thanks to a league-leading string of penalties are one game away from an early summer due to a lack of emotion from McDavid.
Makes total sense! And hockey analysis lives to fight another dignified day.
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