The Edmonton Oilers are tied for second in their division right now, which is probably a little higher than a lot of people might have expected more than a third of the way through the season.
There’s no doubt they’ve benefited from playing a fairly easy schedule to this point — they currently rank 27th in the NHL — but there have been plenty of ups and downs even through 32 games.
They won seven of their first eight games. Then they lost eight of their next 10. Then they won three in a row, then lost three in a row. After that, more losses broken up only by some intermittent winning and the ability to get to overtime somewhat regularly. So while they’re second in the division, against weak competition, it’s not exactly an inspiring position for them overall.
But what’s interesting about this is that the Oilers have been two very different teams so far this year. There’s Edmonton with Connor McDavid on the ice, a nearly unstoppable force to rival any level of production seen in the NHL since it started tracking shot attempts. Then there’s Edmonton without Connor McDavid on the ice, a team you might recognize as being a lot like the Edmonton Oilers from 2006-15.
You know the deal here: McDavid is probably the best player in the world at just 19 years old, and leads the league with 39 points in 32 games. That number is only the second-highest per-game total in the league, behind someone you might have heard of called Sidney Crosby, but you really have to consider a whole lot of other factors that go into production, and what makes McDavid’s five-point lead in the points column over Vladimir Tarasenko (34 in 30) so special.
For one thing, McDavid simply doesn’t have a lot of help. He has 13 more points so far than Leon Draisaitl, who’s second on the team in scoring. Only two other Oilers are even north of 20 points, and both of them are on McDavid’s line. To be fair Tarasenko has it even harder from a production standpoint, with only one other Blues player clearing 20, but the good news for St. Louis is that when Tarasenko is off the ice, the team is still perfectly alright. He makes them great, but it’s not like they struggle.
The same is true, obviously, of Crosby in Pittsburgh. Big-time relative numbers, but with Malkin and Crosby both in point-a-game territory as well, you know Mike Sullivan’s boys are in good hands for basically the entire game.
Here’s a quick breakdown of what the Oilers look like with and without McDavid on the ice at 5-on-5 this season, and the where that number ranks among the 299 other NHL seasons in the past decade or so:
So as you can see, this is sort of like that Taylor Hall thing, where the Oilers were into the negative triple digits in terms of goal differential while he was still with the team, but he was marginally positive, because that was how much of a difference he made.
If Connor McDavid could somehow play every second of 5-on-5 hockey for the Oilers and keep up the same production, that team would cruise through every game and smash opponents in a way we have never seen before. If the Oilers didn’t have McDavid at all, they would probably continue to miss the playoffs despite their various improvements in the summer, and by a decent-sized margin.
What’s interesting, though, is that 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.
It’s worth noting that great players having great seasons are almost always going to be significantly better than their teams when they’re off the ice. That only makes sense. But the WOWY gaps for Tarasenko and Crosby, or any other great player in the league this season, are mere divots in comparison with the Grand Canyons separating most of McDavid’s on/off stats.
Which brings us to the semantic argument you get every year when it comes to great players on not-great teams. Obviously Crosby looks like the MVP candidate because he’s scoring almost a goal a game (which you can’t expect to last) and his team looks better than just about anyone in the league both right now and on the balance since the middle of last year. Easy Hart candidate; great player, great season, great team.
But McDavid seriously runs the risk of the Oilers falling apart — again, they’ve won just eight games since Oct. 30 — and missing the playoffs despite this incredible effort he’s undertaking almost on his own. Obviously there are skilled supporting cast members on the team including a number of Nos. 1 and 2 picks, but these numbers don’t lie.
The Oilers are scoring almost 60 percent of the goals with McDavid on the ice at 5-on-5 (he’s cleaning up on the power play too, and actually draws a healthy chunk of all Edmonton power plays in the first place). And based on expected-goals he’s right about where he should be given his talent level.
Meanwhile the Oilers without him only score 44.7 percent of 5-on-5 goals in their games, which is only a little unlucky in comparison with expected goals (46.5 percent).
Let’s put it in the simplest terms possible: Right now, McDavid’s on-ice goal differential is plus-20 in all situations. When he’s off, Edmonton is minus-2.
Edmonton has 93 goals in 32 games, the No. 7 offense in the league. McDavid has 39 points. That gives McDavid a hand in almost 42 percent of all the goals they’ve scored. There’s really not much more any one player can do on a team like this to make them remotely competitive, which McDavid has basically all by himself.
And if you want to throw in the intangible argument, McDavid is also the reason the team was able to sign helpful role players like Lucic, simply by existing. He’s on a team that has been so bad for so long it’s hard to remember when they were good. They’ve been a punchline since he was like 10 years old. He made them relevant pretty much all by himself.
So if Edmonton misses the playoffs yet again, and there’s any question about, “How can a guy be valuable if his team didn’t even make the playoffs?”
Connor McDavid is how.
(All statistics via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)
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