SEATTLE – Connor McDavid is one of those once-in-a-generation players who so often looks like he has it all figured out almost every time he hops over the boards.
McDavid is one of the most dangerous offensive players in NHL history. He has the top-end speed that former coach Ken Hitchcock said reminded him of Pavel Bure. The way he thinks the game is such that his junior hockey GM Sherry Bassin said gave him a two-second advantage over everyone else. He can do just about anything he wants with the puck.
Or, at least, that’s how he’s usually looked throughout his career.
McDavid has exhibited those traits so rarely this season. It’s surprised everyone — himself included. His confidence has taken a hit as a result.
“It’s right there along with the rest of the group — not very high,” McDavid said.
McDavid’s unique skill set has helped him produce 860 career points and he’s still more than two months shy of his 27th birthday. However, just 10 of those points have come this season.
For most players, 10 points in as many games would be considered great — outstanding even. McDavid isn’t most players. He’s on an 80-point pace, which would be the lowest output of his career other than his injury-shortened rookie campaign in 2015-16.
When it comes to production, the drop off in McDavid’s production has come since his return from missing two games with an upper-body injury. McDavid came back in time for the Heritage Classic on Oct. 29 and recorded an assist in a 5-2 win over the Flames.
He has just a single power-play helper in four games — all losses. The reigning Rocket Richard winner has gone seven contests without scoring, which predates his injury, and has scored only twice this season.
McDavid is adamant that he’s in “excellent” health since returning to the lineup. Provided he’s being truthful, that rules out that reasoning for his subpar play.
Ever since the outdoor matchup against the Flames, it looks like he’s flying early in games and then slows down as they progress.
His 52.8 expected goals percentage at five-on-five is third worst on the Oilers among regulars, per Natural Stat Trick. He’s ahead of just Derek Ryan and Evander Kane, who are both over 51 percent.
McDavid isn’t alone in the underachieving category, though.
Running mate Leon Draisaitl’s struggles have been the most confounding, especially since he hasn’t been sidelined. Five goals and 15 points in 12 games seems pretty good. He’s on a 102-point pace, after all. But the number of intercepted passes and whiffed one-timers has been startling.
Draisaitl has just one tap-in goal in nine games. He had the most goals in the league over the last five seasons entering this one.
“It just happens,” Draisaitl said after Thursday’s loss in San Jose. “I’ve had weeks before where it didn’t go my way. This one seems a little more drastic because it’s early on in the year. But I’ve had stretches like this before; every player in the league has had stretches like this before. I’m not overly worried. The goals will come and, if they don’t, then you have to find different ways to score.”
Oilers’ crisis shifts to embarrassment after loss to the Sharks
McDavid’s and Draisaitl’s offensive woes are a major factor in why the Oilers are in this 2-9-1 mess, which has them, per The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn, at slightly better than coin-flip odds to make the playoffs.
“Everybody goes through struggles. We’re no different. We’re human. It’s been a really long time since we’ve gone through something like this,” McDavid said. “It’s not fun. It’s not fun to go through it as a group.”
The Oilers should have the firepower to withstand McDavid’s struggles given that they were the top offensive team in the NHL last season with the best power play. They employ the 100-point Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman, and Kane.
They’re not producing close to their capabilities. The forwards down the lineup aren’t producing at amid fluctuating ice time. No one is playing well.
“I don’t think anyone obviously feels very good about their game or is feeling very confident out there,” McDavid said. “How do you instill that? If I had that answer, I probably wouldn’t be playing hockey. I’d be a billionaire somewhere. It’s not easy. Confidence is a tricky thing.”
The Oilers are getting their chances, to be sure. They have 58 percent of the shot attempts at five-on-five, second to the Hurricanes entering Friday’s games. Their five-on-five shot differential is seventh. They’re creating offense when both teams are at full strength.
“I’ve liked like chances that we’ve got. I’ve liked the control of the games that we’ve had,” McDavid said. “There’s obviously parts to clean up when you’re in a situation like this.”
Finishing off those chances is at the top of the list. The Oilers are shooting six percent as a team at five-on-five. That’s meant they’ve been outscored 31-19 in that situation.
“The last five percent is the hardest part,” McDavid said. “The last five percent separates great players from good players.”
The first power-play unit, which was the sole reason why the Oilers scored on an NHL record 32.4 percent of chances last season, has one goal in five games since McDavid’s return.
“We’ve seen penalty kills do different things,” McDavid said. “We’ve seen teams go to this three-up kill that has given lots of power plays headaches. We’re forcing things. That’s going to happen when it’s not going well.
“We need to get back to the basics of our power play. Our power play is a hardworking power play. It wins battles. It scores goals not necessarily in the most common ways. It comes off of shooting the puck and winning battles.”
There has been a ton of attention on the Oilers’ shoddy defense and league-worst goaltending. Rightly so.
But this once high-powered team isn’t scoring goals. They scored 3.96 goals per game last season but are averaging just 2.58 through 12 contests. Only three teams entering play on Friday were below them. The Oilers have been held to two goals for in their last three games. That’s happened seven times this season.
“It seems like getting to three goals is a challenge for us,” Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft said. “You worry when you’re not creative the scoring chances. For me, the finish can improve. It’s not nearly good enough. Finish sometimes happens based on volume. We’ve got to take care of the other side of things first.”
The Oilers need more from everyone in the lineup in just about every respect. That means offensively, too.
It’s almost unthinkable to suggest considering the Hall of Fame resumes they’ve both built, but the improvements must start with McDavid and Draisaitl.
“I’m seeing two individuals that are giving us everything they have,” Woodcroft said. “It hasn’t gone perfectly for them individually or us collectively as a team. They wear that because they’re such proud individuals. They’re great leaders. Once our team gets going in the right direction, that eases some of that burden for them.”
(Photo: Eric Hartline / USA Today)