Protecting Connor McDavid

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It took all of one game for questions about the Edmonton Oilers’ ability to protect Connor McDavid to surface. It wasn’t a regular season game, which would have been too much to hope for, but I had been optimistic that we’d at least be able to wait until the preseason before the inevitable hair-pulling about the possibility of injury.

Instead, one clean hit in the first game of an almost entirely meaningless prospect tourney and here we are.

The Correct Answer

Here’s what Jason Gregor wrote right after the event happened:

McDavid isn’t a porcelain doll. He can handle a hit or two. In regular season, you can’t react to every hit, but in a rookie game, I had no issue with Mitch Moroz and Darnell Nurse getting in Virtanen’s face in the next few shifts. I know Moroz took an unsportsmanlike penalty, weak call by ref IMO, but the outcome of this game means nothing. I won’t critique a retaliatory penalty, especially when the Oilers haven’t responded for years. They need to create a culture where they stand up for themselves and each other.

Colleague Gregor is of course entirely right. McDavid has been playing contact sports for years now, and he’s been the top target for every team he has played against going back for probably all of that.

Or, if you don’t like Gregor’s view, take it from Jason Strudwick, who knows a little bit about playing in the NHL. Here’s what Strudwick had to say when this came up in our weekly mailbag last month:

McDavid has been a target for his whole life in hockey. He is smart and will figure it out. A couple slashes or a spear in retaliation would also give him some space every now and then.

The job of protecting McDavid is going to fall primarily on the shoulders of McDavid. Mostly, he’s going to keep his head up and avoid situations where he’s vulnerable and likely to get plastered. Partially, he’s going to do those little things which make it clear he’s no pushover. His team will be there to help, but at the end of the day it’s mostly going to be up to him.

The Wrong Answers

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Stick Luke Gazdic on his wing. This one is popular among people who haven’t seen a hockey game since 1985. This doesn’t happen anymore, and the reason is that it’s hard to get full value from a franchise player when said franchise player has a fourth-liner stapled to him.

Trade for a Milan Lucic-type player. This doesn’t work either, I’m afraid. Not only is it hard to find big, physical types with legitimate skill, but the current structure of the game means that nobody really has to be worried about getting pummeled even if the guy designated to do the pummeling happens to be on the ice at the time. Don’t believe me? Peter Chiarelli knows this as well as anyone.

Target the other team’s stars. This one sounds awfully good in theory. In practice, it generally perpetuates a cycle because the other team feels the same way about these things as the Oilers do. Nobody wants to show weakness; so if somebody cheap shots an Oiler and the Oilers respond in kind it essentially forces the opposition to step up. The Chicago way works great if one side has more power and/or conviction than the other; otherwise it just opens up a war of attrition in which 28 uninvolved teams win and the two teams involved lose.

Have the other four guys on the team jump whoever laid the hit. There are three big problems with this. The first is the one pinpointed above; this kind of assault basically demands a response in kind from the other team. The second is that this is when really bad, life-altering things tend to happen. The best-case scenario is that the retaliating team takes a whole bunch of penalties and every other club in the league knows that a hard hit on a star is all it takes to get the Oilers so hot and bothered that they’ll take limitless penalties and spend so much time seeking revenge that they can’t be bothered to try and win hockey games.

There’s value in playing hard, physical hockey; it’s a tough game and a lot of good teams play that style. There’s even value in measured retaliation; making life difficult for a transgressor may have some deterrence value and it undeniably helps a team feel like a team. But no amount of over-the-top retribution is going to keep Connor McDavid from getting hit. Nor should it; the NHL is a contact league and being able to take a hit is a pretty vital requirement to playing in it.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

  • MorningOwl

    McDavid is an elusive player just as Bobby Orr and Pavel Bure used to be. Orr and Bure had shortened careers because some players would rather stick a leg out rather than get beat clean. The mentality is actually from trying not to get benched for blown defensive coverage. Hard to change that with a Gazdic.

  • MorningOwl

    Folks forget that McDavid was playing in the OHL at age 15 against a lot of 19 and 20 year old behemoths. He seems to have survived that ok.

    As for him getting career shortening injuries, i’d rather have 8 years of Bobby Orr than 20 years of jultz.

  • Joy S. Lee

    JW, perhaps you could educate us all – since you’re a part of the group – about the short-sightedness of the media in general and overall. It’s you guys that cause all of this, as evidenced by some earlier comments about the post-game scrum. So, do you have an explanation that you’d care to offer, outside of the fact that the editor’s boss says that if it bleeds, it leads? What’s your opinion: is it ever going to change? Is it – in your opinion – getting better, or worse; and why?

  • CMG30

    Excellent article. It’s absolutely true that there’s only so far a team can go in ‘retaliating’ for a hit on their stars. Dropping everything for revenge is no way to win hockey games.

    When it comes to the worst deliberate dirty shots, ultimately the NHL needs to do it’s part. Players getting season/career-ending suspensions or teams losing draft picks over deliberate targetings will cut out that kind of nonsense.

  • Lyxdeslic

    I trust that Connor McDavid’s on ice awareness will help him avoid too many dangerous situations. It’s a contact sport at the end of the day. I doubt that anybody will take liberties but I am sure they will play him hard. The best way to make sure teams don’t cross the line? Kill them on the PP. If we can have a dangerous PP then teams might be more cautious when they have a chance to make a borderline hit.

  • 24% body fat

    Mr. Willis – I’m sure you’re really looking forward to the start of the real hockey games so you can have something to write about. I generally enjoy and respect your articles, but you seem to be fishing now. Contact is a part of the game and you have to be able to give and receive. Especially at an elite level.

    AS mentioned in previous posts, the media have made more of any issue of the hit that anyone, including Oiler fans. It was a hockey play. No one got hurt. Can’t knock his team mates reactions since it was a nothing game.

    McDavid will have protection. Maybe not somebody riding shotgun on his wing, but I expect there are going to be 4 other players on the ice that will have his back. Player’s can’t just ignore runs, whether they’re McDavid or Yakupov or Gadzic.

    With the personnel and management changes, I think the Oiler’s will be more retaliatory this season. I think they will develop more of a pack attitue and I do think this will be a nice improvement over what they’ve shown the past few years.

  • Lyxdeslic

    I thought Mitch Moroz was one of the most important people on the ice. His point production was irrelevant. Their are intangibles in the game and toughness is one of them. The smaller players would get demoralized fairly quickly if guys like him were not on the ice.

  • 24% body fat

    Poor little Connor McCoiler…will someone be there to hold his hand on his 1st day of school? Or change his diaper too? Or help him out of is skirt before and after the game?

  • MorningOwl

    This is the worst hockey article I have ever read… the thought and ideas expressed are so blatantly obvious there is no reasonfor them to be brought up, you sir need to retire your pen!