In 2018, Connor McDavid had a historically great season at even strength. I think this achievement has been under-appreciated – in part because of the Oilers were so bad, and in part, because Connor’s total points were weighed down by underwhelming power play production.
McDavid’s 84 even strength points (EVP) this year were 18 more than any other player and the most by any player since Jagr in 1996. However, his 20 power play points (PPP) tied for 62nd in the league. 108 total points are nothing to sneeze at – in fact, that’s the highest total in 6 years. But league-wide scoring was up (to the highest level since 2006), and Connor finished just 6 points ahead of the next-leading scorer (compared to last year’s 11 point lead). Many hockey fans – and many award voters – were underwhelmed by McDavid’s incremental progress over his Hart-winning previous season.
About that Hart Trophy
Far be it from me to defend NHL award voters, but I do think a lot of Oilers fan’s ire is misdirected. As a fan, I am disappointed that McDavid didn’t repeat as MVP, but I’m more inclined to blame McDavid’s teammates, coaches and GM than award voters. I don’t think the league’s leading scorer should automatically win the Hart, and what makes a player the Most Valuable is obviously open to interpretation. It might be unfair to snub players on non-playoff teams, but is it worse than the fact that only one defenceman has won the Hart since 1972?
The real scandal, obviously, is that a team with the league’s leading scorer on an entry-level contract finished 17 points out of a playoff spot. A secondary scandal would be that this year’s Art Ross winner played a feature roll in the league’s 31st-ranked power play.
McDavid’s second half was nuts
McDavid actually got off to a slow start (for him) this season, hampered in part by a lingering illness. After 41 games he was on pace for:
- 28 goals
- 92 points (which would have tied for 6th with MVP-finalist Kopitar)
- A mere 66 EVP (would have tied for first with Giroux)
- 20 PPP
The second half was a different story. In his final 41 games, McDavid scored 27 goals and 62 points. That’s a pace of… *pulls out calculator*
- 54 goals (Rocket Richard!)
- 124 points
- 102 EVP
- And incredibly, still just 20 points on the power play
The last player to score 124 points in a season was Joe Thornton in 2006. The last player to score 100 EVP was Wayne Gretzky in 1991. The Oilers, by the way, won 18 of their last 41 games.
Helping McDavid’s second-half numbers were the final 15 games of the season, in which – having tried every other possible line combination – McLellan finally paired him with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Connor responded with 27 points in 15 games – a pace of 148 per 82 games, including 115 at even strength. (The Oilers? They won 7 of their last 15 games.) Now, 15 games is not a huge sample, and you could project a lot of crazy totals from players’ best 15 game stretch. I would not expect McDavid to score 148 points in a full year with RNH. But Connor playing the best hockey of his career in the last days of a lost season does make me excited for next year.
No player has cracked 130 points since Jagr (149) and Lemieux (161!) in 1996 – the year before McDavid was born. The NHL may never see another 160-point scorer, but if the Oilers can get their power play sorted out, I’d say McDavid has a chance at scoring more points than any player has in his lifetime.
What’s holding McDavid back on the power play?
Hopefully, it was Jay Woodcroft. I’m not smart enough to tell you what went wrong with the Oilers’ power play this season, but I can tell you that they had the league’s worst conversion rate, while also managing to draw the fewest penalties in the league. Both impressive feats for a team with the league’s fastest and highest-scoring player! The Oilers scored 31 PP goals – a full 20 behind the 16th-ranked team, and less than half of the top four teams.
McDavid tallied points on 65% of the Oilers’ PP goals – just behind Hall and Giroux for the league lead in that category. Draisaitl was the only other Oiler to reach 10 PPP (162 players scored more). Last year, the Oilers scored 25 more PPG (ranking 6th) and had 8 players with 10+ PPP.
This is not to say that McDavid bears no responsibility for the Oilers’ recent powerplay woes. It’s fair to say that the power play is a growth area for him, and perhaps he’ll never lead the league in PPP. But he did finish 8th in the league in that category just last season, and 3rd in PP points per minute. If Connor had just matched last years’ 27 PPP, he would have had 115 total points – the most since Crosby in 2007. Of course, the Oilers still would have finished well outside the playoffs.
What would be a reasonable expectation for McDavid next year? I’ll wait for Lowetide to give us the definitive projection, but if he can stay healthy, I would bet on McDavid to improve on this year’s totals and claim his third straight Art Ross. Even a modest improvement by the Oilers’ league-worst power play, along with good health, should put their phenom close to 120 – assuming he can continue to score like it’s the 80’s at even strength. Is that a reasonable assumption? I don’t know. The only comparable season in recent years was Henrik Sedin’s 83 EVP in 2010, which obviously marked the high point of his career. It’s possible that the Oilers just squandered what will stand as McDavid’s most productive season at even strength. But given his early illness, his blistering second half, and the belated discovery of a sidekick in RNH, I’d wager that Connor has the potential for even higher even strength production in the future. Put another way, this was not a season where everything went right for McDavid.
So… what if everything goes right? How high could Connor go if all of the following came together in one year:
- Sustained chemistry with RNH (or similar)
- Continued development as a shooter
- Good health
- The Oilers figuring out how to construct a top-5 power play around the league’s best player
If all those pieces fall into place, I believe McDavid is capable of 130 to 140 points in a season. Which, fingers crossed, should be enough to lead the Oilers back to the playoffs. (That sounds like sarcasm, but the Oilers had a goal differential of -33 this year.) If he does it next season, Peter Chiarelli might just keep his job!