It is too early to freak out, Oilers fans.
1. Probably don’t have to say it
Okay so we’re four games into the season already and the poor Oilers are winless. What’s worse, Connor McDavid has but a single goal to his name. All is not well in Edmonton, it would appear.
That is, of course, a silly opinion because rosters that get massively overhauled in a single summer — as the Oilers did — and get new coaches — as the Oilers did — and bring in new general managers — as the Oilers did — don’t magically become really good. Especially if they were really bad before. Now, can you say that the performances to this point leave a lot to be desired? Sure you can.
But as I’ve said before: This slate of games for the Oilers isn’t exactly easy. There would be few if any “scheduled wins” (i.e. games the team objectively “should win”), even if they were much better than they currently are. Which they are obviously not.
The reason people are already acting like, “Well gee whiz, what’s wrong with these guys?” is the hype train that pulled into the station the day Edmonton won the draft lottery, and has been pulling on that long, loud whistle pretty much perpetually. Everyone is guilty of it, and while it’s hard to blame Edmonton fans for being excited about their future, the photoshops of McDavid on the cross or whatever was overkill that only served to make things at this point seem worse than they actually are.
Point being that, okay, the Oilers are struggling on the ice, and McDavid has a single goal to his name, but the time for panic is still quite a ways away.
2. Don’t sweat the small stuff
One thing that’s been talked about a decent amount already is the lack of cohesion when it comes to lines. Todd McLellan is juggling them like he’s in the circus and they’re angrily buzzing chainsaws, but again, this is something I think you can expect of a new coach taking over a young team that has basically had very little on-ice success over the years.
This is a roster with what seems to be more moving parts than most, in that no one has had a particularly large amount of goals or good possession together (especially in the absence of Jordan Eberle) so, hey, why not throw things at the wall and see what sticks?
So far, nothing has yet, but that doesn’t mean they won’t. The Oilers are currently less than five percent of the way through their season, and this is a team of which little is expected. Some people think they might or even could make the playoffs, but conditionals such as these shouldn’t dictate organizational direction, especially as the club is really only just starting to dust itself off from lying face-down and miserable in the dirt for a period of several years.
Like honestly, who cares? It’s four games and the team’s not that good any way. People have been patient — if you think that’s the right word — vis a vis this team “figuring things out” for this long, what’s another month, or even two?
3. A favorable comparison
I mainly, though, want to talk about things with respect to Connor McDavid and his early-season performance. People are apparently shocked that it hasn’t been mega-great, which I don’t understand.
There aren’t too many 18-year-olds who make their teams all that regularly, even if those teams are pretty lousy. The vast majority also turn 19 pretty soon after the season begins. Only a very small number, including McDavid, will play more games in their first seasons at 18 than 19 (McDavid turns 19 on Jan. 13, after the Oilers’ 44th game).
Moreover, it’s very, very difficult to expect rookies, regardless of age, to immediately be among the very best players in the league. More moreover, we’re judging McDavid based on four games for a mediocre or even not-very-good team, with rotating linemates, against some of the better teams in the toughest division in hockey, three of which were on the road. It’s crazy, but I want to understand the expectation better.
For the sake of comparison, I went and looked at what Sidney Crosby — the only other, “This is an immediate-franchise-changer” player in recent memory, and he was about six months older than McDavid when he came into the league — managed to do early on with the Penguins in 2005-06. The first thing to keep in mind here is that the Penguins were arguably worse then than the Oilers are now, which is saying something. Despite the addition of both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to start that season, they opened the year 0-4-5, giving up 42 goals in nine games(!) and only scoring 26. At least Edmonton isn’t that bad.
Now, we all remember that Crosby finished his rookie season with an astounding 102 points, aided by a number of factors including the league’s willingness to call penalties at the slightest stick lift. Still, 102 points as a rookie is a ludicrous number. But he started out that season with only one goal at 5-on-5 in his first 14 games (and okay, seven assists). He also got massacred in possession for pretty much the entire month of October, despite some pretty free-and-easy handling in terms of the competition he faced at home and his deployment in the offensive zone.
Again, I’m not saying McDavid ends up even as a point-a-game player this season, but if Sidney Crosby had that much of a learning curve early on, and McDavid is supposed to be better than Crosby, then maybe we should all just relax a little bit.
4. On the other hand
This isn’t to say McDavid is playing perfectly, because he isn’t. You’d ideally like to see him getting to the “good” parts of the ice a lot more often in attack, create some more scoring chances, that sort of thing. But even the peripheral numbers do stack up pretty favourably in comparison with Crosby (who arguably had more help than McDavid does now).
From watching the games and looking at the numbers, it appears to me that a lot of McDavid’s issues are what you’d call rookie problems. He’s no longer playing against elite U-18 players and good-to-mediocre U-20s in the CHL. He’s playing against grown-ass men on good teams, and mostly on the road, where line-matching isn’t possible.
McDavid’s most common opponents so far this season? Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester. Welcome to the NHL.
So yeah, he’s going to find it harder to get to scoring areas and he’s going to have to play more defense than he ever has in his entire life. The game clearly still comes to him easily, but the game is just a lot harder at this level.
“Chosen one” or not, “savior” or not, there needs to be a little more slack cut for this kid. Jack Eichel has his two goals, sure. And one of them was on the sort of individual brilliance that people might have expected or wanted from McDavid. But the brilliance of those goals has overshadowed the fact that, like Edmonton, the Sabres still kinda suck. McDavid’s gonna get his shots on goal and he’s going to figure out how to get to the scoring areas pretty quickly.
And when he does, look out.
5. Growing pains
So the talent is undeniable. That much cannot be disputed. The results haven’t been there yet. Okay, fine.
If we get to November and he’s still in the single-digits for points, maybe you start wondering. If he’s not yet at 50 by the All-Star break, that’s a point of concern. If he finishes the season with like 65 instead of everyone’s expected 80-plus, you say it was probably a disappointment.
But honestly, if any of those things happened it would be a surprise. And it would take nothing from his future capabilities. In all likelihood we’re at the start of a Hall of Fame career. Let’s not allow four games in which he was only okay on an only-okay team to cause any sort of issues.