As expected, Connor McDavid will return to the Edmonton Oilers’ lineup on Tuesday. In his post-practice availability today, head coach Todd McLellan made it clear that McDavid was completely healthy and would be playing against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
McDavid spent the All-Star break with the Bakersfield Condors, and although he didn’t play any games during his brief stint in the AHL he did get to skate and take some contact in practice.
“We wouldn’t put him in a game if he didn’t have the chance to get pushed around and banged and fall and take one-timers and all that type of stuff,” McLellan said when asked about it. “The car has been test-driven now for quite a while; it’s ready to go out on the race track. Who knows what happens after that, but it’s been tested. He’s ready to go.”
Nobody is likely to argue that perspective. Some, like our own Matt Henderson, are McDavid clavicle truthers and believe that the superstar centre has been ready to play for a while now. Whatever the case, nobody can claim that the Oilers rushed him back from injury, something which has been said of the franchise far too often in the past. The team took its time, and in its shoes I’d have done precisely the same.
McLellan suggested that the exact timing also offers McDavid an advantage in that the rest of the league is going to be a little rusty, too.
I think he’s going to be very comfortable playing now, but timing and conditioning and reading and reacting on the ice, it’s not an easy thing to do, especially coming in as a 19-year-old halfway through the season. The one advantage that Connor might have is that the whole league took a bit of a break and we might all be coming back rusty. It might give him a chance to be able to fit in a little bit quicker. But based on how he skated today and knowing the work he’s put in I’m not as worried about him as maybe some others.
It’s a good point. McDavid is coming off a long break, but he’s been skating for the past week while most of the remainder of the NHL caught its breath.
Projected lineup v CBJ: Hall-Draisaitl-Purcell, 67-97-14, Kassian-Letestu-Yak, Korpi-Hendy-Pak, Sekera-Fayne, Reinhart-Schultz, Nurse-Gryba.
— Jack Michaels (@EdmontonJack) February 1, 2016
We feel good about starting [McDavid and Eberle] there. There has to be a starting point. [Pouliot] had some familiarity with Connor and Kassian, Letestu and Yak have played together over the last little bit. I think Kassian gives them some physicality that’s allowed them to play well, too.
It’s not surprising to see Jordan Eberle and Connor McDavid united on the same line, nor to see Benoit Pouliot as the left wing on that unit. With Taylor Hall anchoring one line and McDavid the other, Pouliot is almost a default choice and gives the centre a familiar face at left wing.
The real question was on right wing, where there’s a legitimate debate between where Eberle and Yakupov should be assigned. Yakupov of course enjoyed tremendous chemistry with McDavid to start the season, and there’s a case that the two should be reunited. Eberle though has had a tough season and giving him some time with McDavid will help and will also give the organization an idea of what kind of chemistry exists between the two.
The important thing to remember is that this is temporary; the coach can change his approach at any time. It’s also worth keeping in mind that Teddy Purcell is playing top line right wing at the moment and is likely trade bait at some point prior to the deadline; if and when he goes it’s reasonable to expect top-six minutes for both Eberle and Yakupov.
We had [McDavid] penalty-killing 10 or 12 games into the season where he worked his way into that; I don’t know how much of that he’ll do off the bat. We also have to watch his minutes and make sure that he’s handling it. The way he skated today I’m not as worried about Connor as I am the other 19 who have been off for a week.
The idea of using the penalty kill as a development tool for young players isn’t new and it’s one I have some time for. McDavid had been averaging just under 40 seconds per game there. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets back out there eventually, particularly once the Oilers are just playing out the string, but it would be tempting fate a little too much to stick McDavid on the penalty kill fresh off injured reserve.
As for watching his minutes, this has been standard McLellan protocol when it comes to injured players this year. Early on, they typically play in a lesser role if they show signs of struggling.
He was driving our team and he was the energizer guy when he got hurt. I think the rest should energize our team, too. I think I have to make this clear: I am concerned about the rustiness and the ability to get back up into game shape but I think our team needed that, the way we had to overplay guys because of injuries. We may take it on the chin a little bit as far as polish goes right off the bat but the reset button came with time off, it came with kind of a foundation practice today and some really good video; we got to review our game in a lot of different areas and spend some time working on it. Throw Connor into the mix and I think it’s exciting.
McLellan would also add that he was concerned about the rest of the club letting its collective foot off the gas with McDavid back in the lineup, but it’s the part quoted here that really caught my eye. For most of the last decade, the stretch drive has been unpleasant in Edmonton.
This season marks a bit of a change. We’ll still look ahead to the draft on this site, there will still be veterans shipped off for draft picks and there will undoubtedly still be plenty of losses. But the return of McDavid provides the Oilers with a much-needed boost down the stretch, something they haven’t had in most previous campaigns.
It should be fun to watch.