Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

There’s someone to blame for the Oilers’ struggles, but it isn’t Connor McDavid

The Oilers are through 20 games and own a 7-11-2 record. They’re sitting in 14th in the Western Conference and need 87 points in their next 62 games in order to match their 103-point total from last season.

Times are stressful in Edmonton. Just as Oilers fans thought the Decade of Darkness was in the rearview mirror, it’s the middle of November and the possibility of playoffs is slowly slipping away. It’s completely reasonable to be frustrated and it’s natural to want to point the finger at someone. But, honestly I can’t believe I’m actually typing this, Connor McDavid isn’t the person to shoulder responsibility for this team’s struggles.

Yet oddly enough, that’s something I’ve been noticing recently. Whether it’s in our comments section, on twitter, or from the media, there seems to be a desire to look to McDavid when things have gone wrong. His body language is bad, he’s backchecking poorly and was the cause of a goal against, or he’s simply dominating games like he can. McDavid has shockingly become the target of criticisms despite him individually being just as good as he was last season.

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I’ll get the numbers out of the way first. When McDavid is on the ice, the Oilers have 58.3 per cent of the shot attempts at even strength. They have scored 53.9 per cent of the goals at even strength with McDavid on the ice and based on Corsica’s model for expected goals (derived from shot volume and location) they should have 55.9 per cent of them.

Last season, when the Most Valuable Player was on the ice at even strength, the Oilers had 52.9 per cent of the shot attempts and 68.3 per cent of the goals. Corsica figures the Oilers realistically should have had 56.6 per cent of the goals with McDavid on the ice last season, very similar to his 55.9 number in 2017-18.

At a basic, boxcar stats level, McDavid has 10 goals and 15 assists through 20 games, putting him on pace for 41 goals and 102 points. The point total is very similar to his 100-point Hart Trophy season but the 41 goals would shatter his career-high by 11.

I’m not saying McDavid should be absolved of all criticism. If he plays a poor game like he did against St. Louis or has some bad moments like in the game against Dallas, sure, point it out. But, ultimately, McDavid is making this team a lot better whenever he’s on the ice. Unfortunately, the team needs him to be gunning at 110% at all times in order to be successful. They need, at the bare minimum, for McDavid to be that 100-point MVP game in, game out.

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To be fair to Mark Spector and Jim Matheson, they’re pointing out facts. McDavid was on the ice for those goals against in the Dallas game. The issue I have is that they’re choosing to repeatedly spin it as McDavid did this wrong rather than nobody else is doing anything right. The issue that’s ailing the Oilers right now is an inability to score goals which is a big picture thing. It isn’t the anecdotal evidence of McDavid having a poor backcheck that resulted in a goal in one particular instance.

And that’s where we get into where the blame really should be directed. Peter Chiarelli simply hasn’t built a roster that gives McDavid much breathing room. While the rest of the league is transitioning towards speed and skill, he’s put together a team that’s heavy and physical.

It worked well last year because everything went right. Nobody important got injured and a handful of depth players had very good seasons. But Chiarelli’s biggest mistake was banking on everything going right again. Rather than improving the roster over the off-season, he largely stood pat and hoped internal progression could propel the team forward. The issue with that was not only are you banking on players like Darnell Nurse, Matt Benning, Anton Slepyshev, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Drake Caggiula taking a step forward in larger roles, you’re also relying on Leon Draisaitl, Patrick Maroon, Kris Russell, Oscar Klefbom, Mark Letestu, and Zack Kassian being, at the very least, to be as good as they were last season.

That hasn’t happened. Nurse has stepped up in a big way, but Klefbom has struggled a little bit. Russell doesn’t look as effective without Andrej Sekera. Matt Benning hasn’t been able to take on a bigger role. None of Caggiula, Kassian, or Slepyshev have been able to fill Jordan Eberle’s void in the top six.

Yet McDavid isn’t dominating enough.

I’m genuinely terrified at the prospect of McDavid being ran out of town for not being perfect enough. Years ago, we rested our hopes on trying to acquire guys like Dany Heatley and Michael Nylander who were repulsed at the idea of playing in Edmonton. Now we have a generational talent who willingly inked a long-term deal to stick around for the prime years of his career and I’m seeing more talk about what he doesn’t do than what he does do. Let’s focus our frustration in the right direction.

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I’m not saying we need to run Chiarelli out of town. I’m not even saying he’s a bad general manager. He took a risk and it didn’t work out. The team isn’t guttered forever because of it, either. Hell, they aren’t even guttered this season. I mean, they aren’t a Cup contender, obviously, but the playoffs — in a league where more than half the teams qualify — aren’t even out of the question.

What I am saying is that if you want to place blame for this disappointing season, point your finger at the one who constructed the inadequate roster, not the player who’s being forced to damn near singlehandedly compensate for it.