Early in this NHL season, the Edmonton Oilers are undoubtedly one of the best stories. With veteran coach Dave Tippett taking the helm, they sit atop the Western Conference after making the playoffs exactly once in the last 13 seasons.
There are reasons to believe this team is something of a mirage — from their sub-50 team Corsi to a team save percentage of .921 the duo of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith are unlikely to carry forward. James Neal is far from a safe bet to continue his reign of terror, either.
However, the driving force behind the Oilers’ success so far is a constant they’ll be enjoying all year: the dynamic duo of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. Not only do the lethal duo rank first and third in points league-wide with 25 and 23 respectively, they are also at the top of the leaderboards in terms of their team’s reliance on them.
Players doing the most heavy lifting for their respective teams offensively this season. That Leon Draisaitl number is something else.. pic.twitter.com/WstmhcMeZo— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) October 31, 2019
Being heavily reliant on two players isn’t necessarily the worst thing if they’re good enough — and the McDavid-Draisaitl duo is as good as it gets — but in the Oilers’ case it’s involved throwing a ridiculous amount of ice time their way.
Draisaitl is the league leader among forwards in TOI at 23:51, McDavid is just behind at 23:23 and the next man on the list, Mark Scheifele, is more than a minute back (22:03). While both players are used to heavy workloads, this is a whole new level — one rarely seen in the modern game.
In fact, since the 2000-01 season, there have only been 23 other cases of a forward logging 23 minutes or more a night in a season. On that list you find a cavalcade of big names like Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic, Jaromir Jagr, and most recently, Alex Ovechkin in 2008-09. Draisaitl and McDavid are on course for territory the NHL hasn’t seen in 11 years, which throws up something of a red flag. The duo is both exceedingly good and exceedingly young, but the clip they’re going at feels problematic.
In order to evaluate the danger, let’s look at the history. Did those 23 forwards (who were actually 14 forwards thanks to guys who did it twice) see their production or health suffer the next season logging a monster workload?
The answer is, generally speaking, yes. Following each of those 23 seasons, the forwards only played more games three times and recorded more points thrice (two of those three times it was just one point more). These ice time hogs got into the lineup on fewer occasions the next year 13 times and saw their points dip on 17 occasions. Three of the results had to be thrown out due to extenuating circumstances the next season like lockouts, or in IIya Kovalchuk’s case going to the KHL.
Overall the averages look like this:
Those numbers are fairly significant, but they do come with some caveats. For one, there’s some regression to the mean baked into this. If a forward is logging 23 minutes or more per night, he’s likely having a career year, or close to it, so it stands to reason he might come down a touch in his next campaign. Also worth acknowledging is that many of the players in the sample above were significantly older than Draisaitl and McDavid. The average age was 29.4 in the big-minute seasons. That could make a significant difference.
Players closest to Draisaitl and McDavid’s age like Ovechkin (22) and Kovalchuk (20) saw minimal drop offs. However, guys who weren’t old by any means did see their production suffer. For example, Jason Allison went from 95 points to 73 between his age-25 and 26 seasons, and a 27-year-old Paul Kariya lost 10 points despite playing in 16 more games than he did in his 23+ minute season. On the other side of the coin, Rod Brind’Amour was the only guy to see a significant uptick in his points after one of these year (12) despite the fact he was 36 at the time.
Age is a factor here, and the youth of the Oilers’ duo will undoubtedly help them, but it’s far from the only thing that matters. The guys who’ve done this weren’t a bunch of old guys on the verge of losing it.
None of these numbers are conclusive proof that Edmonton will pay for how it’s using its stars. The sample is small enough that it’s more like a collection of case studies than anything else. That said, the fact so few teams have been willing to use their forwards like this should give the Oilers pause — how it’s affected those players should have them concerned.
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