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.

  • Heschultzhescores

    I never liked signing Drai for that amount or those number of years. He’s always seemed a bit lazy to me, an acts a lot like Maroon when things don’t go right for him. We are stuck with him now, but geez, can’t we sign some guys with the right mental make-up as well as having the talent?

    • Flint

      I said this last year and got ripped for it. McDavid never should have been signed before Drai, because that pushed Leon’s value UP. Leon is very talented, but let’s not exclude where a huge % of his points come from – McDavid. Look at last nights game. Cagguila plays with McDavid – doubles his points in one game. Leon….zip. There is too much “worship first, make bold claims second, expect wins last” culture in EDM front office. McDavid is a slam dunk, but is Drai without McDavid one of the 10 best players in this league? No way.

      • Flint

        Kane, Toews, Kopitar, Ovechkin, Crosby, Malkin, Perry, Benn, Stamkos,…. and Draisaitl. Tied for 9th with Stamkos. Think of where those other guys are, what they’ve won, the consistency and track record. That’s where Leon is slotted now, and if McDavid went down, you think Leon can take a hold of this team and drive the bus and get them to wins like a top ten $ player should?

        • Seriously Bored

          All those players you named signed contracts years ago and most of them grew into those contracts. You think matthews and nylander are going to sign for chump change just because you listed off a bunch of guys with value contracts?

      • WillyWonka

        Oilers management (lack of) was responsible for changes to the draft system. Oilers management handling of Drai’s contract will similarly have negative consequences, likely being the root of the next lock out. what a sad state of affair the Oilers leadership is casting over the NHL

  • This.Is.NHL

    I thought things changed but i guess not, start the year with an unfavourable schedule and a few bad calls every game unlike last year but we did get a new building so i understand why we got the calls. Its the same team being very inconsistent very passive defensively trying to just be in position isnt good enough.
    Bye bye playoffs McDavid and Dri need to pull some Gretzky s%#* every game to be a playoff team i mean goals and point wise.

    • corky

      I thought the schedule was called soft for the Oilers to start the season? A good time to put points in the bank. Maybe after the opener vs cgy the oil thought it would come easy. Or is this team predictable and teams have adjusted quickly to the Oilers?

    • Peter Chiarelli

      The schedule is not the problem. The Oilers analytics software program showed us that if Puljujarvi would simply score 40 goals this season, we would make the playoffs.

    • WillyWonka

      the Oilers started with a favorable schedule, but squandered the early shots at marginal teams. the calls? please – every team is a victim of this crap

      • This.Is.NHL

        If im a ref and lets say the Oil vs Detroit and theres a goalie interference so the Oilers call coachs challenge as a ref Detroit needs more fans to buy tickets, fans=wins, and the Oilers have the best player in the game and that = tickets already, as a ref or Toronto war room im going to see the play my way and give it to Detroit, for the betterment of the NHL.
        Eg. Detroit player taps Talbot i’ll say Detroit player had his lane and Talbot could have moved, vise versea Oiler player taps Detroit goalie its interference the way i see it as a ref who works for the NHL looking out for the betterment of the league.

  • Go oilers go

    Two problems both existed last year and still exists…. d is not deep enough…no sekera big problems…I love Gryba but he shouldn’t be a 6/7 dman on a Stanley cup team…second no one to play with Connor…Pittsburgh plays best when Malkin Crosby and kessel are on different lines and having mates playing with them hard to check against…we need mcdavid drai and nuge on different lines and they need players to play with or they have to change how they play to get others included…unfortunately this could be a tough learning curve of young players needing to learn how to adjust to succeed….the pressure being put on them is enormous and now we are seeing it in the games best player with the mistake he made last game..trying to do too much…instead of being in first gear all the time he needs to shift it down once in a while to be able to utilize other players strengths and not feel like he has to push the play all the time…this could be a tough year and everyone is getting beaten up…fans included

  • Opi

    Johnny Hockey™, 19 games, 1.53 pts per game … ranked 3rd overall, league wide …

    McDavid, 20 games, 1.25 pts per game … ranked 5th overall …

    Generational, I think not …

  • Dr. Merkwurdigliebe

    McDavey is not the problem. It’s a lack of linemates. I’m sorry, but if Pat Maroon is on your top line, that is a bad sign. It sucks, but chia is left with no choice but to move Nuge or Drai to improve the situation at wing. McD needs a pure goal scorer to play with.

    • Petrolero

      I want to think chiarelli didn’t make the necessary moves last summer because he had to settle the contract situation with MCD and Drai. Regardless of how this season ends, MCD, Drai, Nuge (yes he needs to stay) Luc, Sekera, Klef and Larson are the long mile horses the team is going to run with. The most important summer for this team was not this past one, it’s going to be next summer. This is where Chiarelli will either turn the team into either a cup contender or the Washington Capitals of the West (or the next San Jose Sharks).

    • camdog

      The endless cycle of trading players needed on the roster to fill another void still leaves a void. The only way this team is getting out of this mess is through the draft…

      • Dr. Merkwurdigliebe

        Oilers have a wealth of centres. Move one to improve the team. We still have a 1C and 2C. Oilers have had plenty of opportunity to build through the draft.

    • jultz=2cups!??

      Hahahaha! Was it a “bad sign” last year when he was on the top line and the oilers went to the second round?? How quickly “oiler fans” forget.

  • Opi

    If it takes 95 points to make the playoffs the Oil need an additional 79 points over the next 62 games … they currently sit with all of 16 points … can the Oil go 39-22-1 or thereabouts over the next 62 games … that’s a .637 win % & is a pretty big reach given the Oil went .628 last season with everybody healthy & most all players having career seasons, no? But with each & every passing loss this becomes more & more difficult … we will see where they are around the 23-25 game mark …Should the Flames even be competitive with the hapless Oil …?

  • Opi

    This Oil team has had seven top seven picks in the seven years preceding the 2017 draft … and still sit 29th overall after 20 games … what a pathetic franchise …

    • hagar

      That is because the powers that were 8 years ago, are still the powers that be. Katz has too much money too care about the oilers, he is making billions off the franchise via real estate, he doesn’t care if his buddies continue to screw the team itself up.
      We are just a bunch of rubes.

  • RJ

    What’s up with the Eberle love?

    It should be obvious why he’s doing better. He plays in a softer conference with less travel and less physical play.

    Do people forget when the going got tough he vanished? TWO points in 13 games for the “elite scorer”.

    • Slipknot 8

      This is so stupid……
      Could it be that Eberle, a PROVEN 60 point player had an off year? SO, by your same logic, the Oilers should trade RNH as well because he put up even less points and didn’t do much in the playoffs ether…..
      You’re Chiarelli’s new best friend….
      By the way, how’s Eberle doing this year playing in the much better, much faster Eastern conference!!

  • RJ

    The saddest part to me is that there aren’t any players in Bakersfield that are going to push for spots in the top-6.

    Give away picks for Reinhart, Chia and McLellan are severely hurting the lineup. Wasting a pick on Benson hurts the team and he’s probably the third best prospect the team has.

    It’s about time an ON writer points a finger at Chia’s inept management.

  • Slipknot 8

    It was a good article, I like your optimism but the Oilers won at 625% clip last year, for the rest of the year the Oilers would have to play near 700% to make the playoffs, with a lesser team then last years.
    Chiarelli is not the guy to rebuild this roster, a competent GM who has an understanding of the league needs to step in, but unfortunately the Oilers are still run by the group that doesn’t understand this concept.
    The damage is done; was done the minute they hired a guy who was fired for doing the IDENTICLE thing that’s occurring in Boston…
    The roster has two players who are not “core” players locked in….untradeable!! That’s two huge spots that should be filled with players that should have been younger then 25, but Chiarelli traded an elite player so he could have an overaged player.
    The Oilers need at least two forwards and one of them has to drive a second line….So at least one elite player….
    The Oilers need at least one RHD who can actually move the puck and can quarterback a PP
    In order to re-re-build this team on the fly, a couple of important players have to get traded & unfortunately that’s going to come at a huge cost…….
    The other incredibly important part of this is……….Chiarelli cannot screw the next trades up…… or the Oilers are finished.

    • IRONman

      Oilers are Lucky to have 97. He is the future of this team. Call a spade a spade. Hall Nuge Ebs is a better second line than we have now. We should have Barzal on the team too. Horrible [email protected]@kng trades. Waste of assets. And a coach that is not motivating his players. New GM and coaching

    • Serious Gord

      They have to play around 635. Not 700. A big challenge very likely one that can’t be done. But not impossible.

      If they get to January needing to play 670 or better the rest of the way this fan base is going to be throwing jerseys.

  • BendingCorners

    Wow. There are people dumb enough to advocate trading CMcD. And a whole bunch more writing off the season. Parity means one thing – you’re not out of it until March. The Oilers have talent and toughness, they are just having a run of seriously bad luck. As long as they focus on the fundamentals and work hard they will come out the other side. If any team in the league can put together an extended win streak, it’s this one. Swapping Eberle for Strome isn’t the kind of move that costs a team 40 points in the standings and come April the Oilers will be in the dance.

    • Reinman

      People that are saying trade Connor are thinking of Connor, and not the oilers. Do the Oilers want to be known as the team who squandered a generational talent. He will win his cup, when he leaves Edmonton.

      • cgyearnall/edmfreeloaders

        Whats up dont change now..you guys squandered and came close to wrecking great kids…all have done better once gone from the pty city..lol

      • BendingCorners

        We cheer for the jersey not just the player. Trading McD would be to acknowledge the futility of hockey in Edmonton. Not going to happen and not necessary since he will win the Cup on this team. Righting the team is like righting a kayak – it’s rolled upside down and now it just need to keep rolling to pop up again. Changing direction would leave them underwater with no gills.

  • Cauliflower McPugg

    Lets hear it for the quality of opinion in current sports media!! Some of these guys are PAID journalists for established MSM entities…… . hawt dayum… theres hope for everyone!!

    In the prescient words of the venerable Bob McKenzie (AGAIN!)
    We’re gonna talk about nuthin till nuthins enough.


  • Flint

    I thought it was #generaldisappointment not #generationaldisappointment?

    Look, it’s no doubt the skill on 97. But, he’s 20, remember? It’s going to take him some years to grow into the two-way portion of the game. Part of the porblem in Edmonton (by my eyes) is every player you get is the messiah, and you lump so much pressure and expectation on kids. You’ve got a 20yr old captain, that the coach called out publicly. He still has lots to learn, but he’s also one of the best in the league. Remember, he’s a hockey player, he’s not a trophy.

    • Dean S

      Is anyone else getting tired of watching Cam Talbot: 1. drop to his knees, 2. come out to challenge, 3. get caught out of position, 4. unable to push across (on his knees).
      A goaltending coach should be able to show him the video for heaven sakes!!!!

  • Gravis82

    This is what happens when your GM loses 90% of the movesnhe makes. The team gets to be so bad that it makes the good players look like the problem. Vicious cycle

  • GK1980

    Feel sorry for this kid. If I was coach I would play him less (normal minutes) and see what the rest of the team can do. See who is worthy of keeping for next season since this season is already in serious doubt.

  • McDynasty97

    Cam, you are SPOT ON! Very well articulated article I might add. I might suggest a little blame goes toward Todd McLelland as well. I understand he has had a more difficult time with juggling the lineup due to injuries this year. Especially with key ones to Leon, Slepyshev and Caggula (to name a few). But I think he has hampered the teams’ ability to create chemistry by over managing the lineup. I also understand his idea of leaving Connor and Leon together for so long but it seems like the rest of the team, (and everyone watching I might add) feel like they just have to maintain the status quo in-game and sit back and wait till the top line does something. This whole dynamic changed for a brief few minutes vs Dallas when TMac split them up and played Draisiatl with Nuge and Khiara, i believe… not only did it force Dallas to adjust their line matchup but gave the Oilers some jump, almost as if to say they recognized that they all had to pull their weight and also had a better opportunity to play higher in the lineup. The long term solution is to have Connor and Leon separated and driving their own line. Put them together on the PP and an OT and they will pick up right where they left off. Lets find some lines and stick to them. Lets stop waiting for Connor McDavid to do something magical every shift. Lets go Oilers!!!

  • Joeboot

    Most if not all are only judging based on what we see on the ice. I think the problem is either team chemistry (dressing room issues) and/or Todd has lost respect of the team, refer to Thortons comments when Todd left SJ. The reason I think this is because of inconsistency. Oilers have shown the ability to compete but many on some nights seem to lack interest.