Playoffs? We’re talkin’ playoffs.
1. Acknowledging reality
Okay so we all know the Oilers have not been good on the balance of the season. This much is obvious. Tough to put lipstick on being last in a rotten division with the second-worst point total in the league. Well, yes, technically they’re tied with four other teams, so maybe you say it’s fifth-worst, but I’m not too inclined to give anyone with only two more points than the Blue Jackets too much of a benefit of the doubt.
The good news, though, is that as was alluded to earlier, their division is rotten. Much has been made of the fact that there are currently no Canadian teams in the playoffs. “Which one can rescue the Great White North from a national nightmare?” and so on. It’s something people have been thinking about a lot at this point, and if I’m going to be bullish on one of them doing so — it’s hard, but I’m trying! — I believe I’d have to pick the Oilers. I think.
The Canadiens have the most obvious talent but they’ve been in such a death spiral all season that I’m starting to think even a return for Carey Price, whenever that may be, won’t be enough to rescue them at this point. Likewise, the Maple Leafs are finished and that is broadly acknowledged, because Peter Holland has been getting top-line minutes in recent games and, well, that tells you a lot. Ottawa has one great player and a few okay ones and a bunch of bad ones, and they’re not that far ahead of Toronto. So that’s the Eastern side sorted.
The Jets are done, because not even top-flight goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck (.924 in 23 games) can save a club this mediocre in a division this tough. Calgary and Vancouver are in the same position as the Oilers insofar as their division is the same and still really bad, but the talent levels on those teams, and the coaching they get, is clearly lacking.
So that really leaves just the Oilers. Not that I’m super-stoked about their chances or anything, but there is one X factor.
2. Of course it’s Connor McDavid
Okay yeah, he has a game-breaking talent that maybe only a handful of others possess. It’s incredibly difficult to be a point-a-game player in this league at any age, let alone as a rookie on a mediocre-at-best club.
I mean look, the kid comes back for his first games in three months and scores five points in about 20 minutes of ice time. That’s bananas. And sure, it’s Ottawa and Columbus, but I don’t think it’s telling tales out of school here to say that the Oilers look like a completely different team when he’s in the lineup than during the long, long stretch for which he was out.
Let’s just look at the basics here: The Oilers are 7-8-0 when McDavid is in the lineup, and 14-18-5 when he’s not. We’re dealing with small samples at this point, obviously, but one has to keep in mind that all eight of those losses came when the entire team was learning a new system from a new coach — their sixth since 2009-10 — so things weren’t exactly supposed to go smoothly. Or at least, they weren’t expected to.
McDavid has 17 points in his 15 games, and one has to imagine that even in his limited usage he’s having a big impact throughout the lineup. With him in, that moves every center down a rung on the depth chart, so it becomes easier for, say, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to deal with the opponents he’s facing and so on.
3. What’s McDavid’s impact?
In furtherance of this point, I will also say that of the 20 or so Oilers games I’ve watched this year — mostly McDavid’s but also several when he was out — you can see a substantial difference in the team’s overall play with and without McDavid. Again, tough to judge based on these small samples, but I was curious what these numbers would look like, so I ran them just for fun.
So like I said before, I’m not sure that you can take these as necessarily being face-value. Even with score adjustments, you have to acknowledge the Oilers brained their opponents in the last two games by a combined score of 12-3, so let’s not make too big a thing of how ugly things like high-quality chance differential. But at the same time, it’s like, “Well there’s not much different there,” and none of the data is particularly encouraging overall.
That certainly doesn’t feel or look like a playoff team, process-wise or indeed, in terms of results.
But what I think is interesting if you go deeper into that data is the fact that goals — which are, admittedly, more random than other numbers, especially in the small samples we’re dealing with — follow trends you might expect with and without McDavid.
With McDavid in the lineup this year, they’ve been outscored 30-32, but without him it’s 58-75. That works out to this:
Is McDavid worth about 0.6 goals per 60? Maybe not, in and of himself. But again, if you’re adding him to the lineup instead of the standard AHL call-up, and then also shuffling all of Edmonton’s other forwards down the lineup, I buy that level of individual impact. That, I think, makes sense. The Penguins’ goals-related WOWYs vis a vis Sidney Crosby over the course of his entire career drops 10 percentage points — from 59.2(!) to 49.1 — so I believe it’s reasonable to make a similar claim about McDavid’s goalscoring impact.
And I also buy the improvement in their goals-against numbers because, again, the team is seemingly playing better defense right now than it did at the start of the year, and I’d be willing to attribute that to the continual learning of Todd McLellan’s system. They’ve improved substantially in this regard over the course of the year, largely in McDavid’s absence.
Will that continue? I’d have to guess the answer is in the affirmative.
5. Acknowledging reality, again
This isn’t any sort of great team, obviously, but you don’t have to be great or even particularly good to make the playoffs these days. Can Edmonton be a team that sneaks in? I’d have to put the binary odds at “no,” but there’s room for this team to go on a run moreso than just about anyone else in Canada.
McDavid is such a game-changer, and combining his superior offensive impact with a coalesced and altogether better defensive approach could — or rather, should — result in a better record down the stretch.
He’s not going to score 2.5 points per game every night for the remainder of the year, but any time you’re providing even one point a night you’re bringing such value to your team that it becomes harder to be pessimistic about a team with a player like that. Especially in a league with teams currently scoring just 2.65 goals per game.
With the Oilers playing tighter hockey and McDavid providing more offense, a late-season run isn’t out of the question. And I really can’t believe I’m saying that about the Oilers, but here we are.