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Photo Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

McDavid Madness and Will Neal Score 30 Goals?

IThe Oilers improbable climb to the top of the NHL standings has many around the NHL re-thinking their stance on the Oilers. It is only four games, but a few things have noticeably improved.

Their decisions with the puck are much better. They play quicker, they are a faster team. Their defence is more mobile and moves the puck more efficiently. They hold the blueline more often, are getting back pressure support, and they have two of the best offensive stars in the game. It helps that James Neal and Zack Kassian are off to the best starts of their career, but the improved decisions with the puck, how they defend in the defensive zone, as well how they defend in the neutral zone, and attack from the neutral zone, are the biggest improvements I’ve seen.

Last night wasn’t a stellar game by the Oilers, but they persevered and won. That is the third game so far this season the Oilers have come from behind in the final 10 minutes of the third period and won the game.

Against Vancouver, Kassian tied the game with 9:48 remaining and Connor McDavid scored the winner with 5:23 to go.
Three nights later Darnell Nurse tied it with 9:50 left on the clock against LA, and then Neal potted the winner with 6:32 remaining.
Last night McDavid tied it with 1:06 left in the third and Leon Draisaitl won it in the shootout.

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They trailed three times last night and countered every time, without allowing New Jersey to grab a two-goal lead. They didn’t play their best game, but they hung around, kept it close and capitalized when they got a chance.

Against LA they trailed by a goal on four different occasions, but managed to tie it every time. They’ve haven’t trailed by more than one goal at any point this season. Obviously that will change, but their ability to depress the momentum of their opposition, and not get in a hole, has been a major reason they are 4-0.

“You get down late in a game, it’s that belief within your structure that you can get it done. That’s what we have here,” said Darnell Nurse last night.

Head coach Dave Tippett admitted yesterday wasn’t their best game, but they won and that’s what matters.

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“I didn’t think we played near as well as we played the other night (in New York),” Tippett said. “But I liked the way we hung around and battled. Our players were talking about it after the second period. We don’t feel like we’ve got our A-game, but that’s not an excuse for not winning. Let’s find a way to win a game. Our special teams won us the game,” said Tippett.

It is only four games, but you have to be pumped about how things are going.

NUMBER CRUNCHING…

McDavid has ten points in four games. It is his best start to an NHL season, and it is tied for the second-most productive four-game stretch of his career. He had ten points in four games between February 1st-9th, 2018, but his best four-game stretch occurred the following month when he produced 12 points in March of 2018.

March 22nd at Ottawa he had 2-2-4
March 24th v. LA he had 2-0-2
March 25th v. ANA he scored 1-2-3
March 27th v. CBJ he tallied 1-2-3

McDavid did have nine points in his first four games last season, and picked up two points in game five. So this type of production is not new from McDavid, but when you see his reaction to the video review on his game-tying goal, it is clear how badly he wants to win.

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Winning becomes infectious and he’s only tasted it once in his first four NHL seasons. Competitive people love winning. That feeling is almost like an addition to them. They crave it. They need it and want more of it. It is very early in the season, but when your best player is that emotionally engaged the rest of the team feeds off of him.

NEAL PRODUCTION…

Oct 5, 2019; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward James Neal (18) celebrates a first period goal against the Los Angeles Kings at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

While McDavid’s point totals aren’t a big surprise, which is crazy when you consider ten points in four games to be normal, James Neal’s seven goals has many wondering how many goals can he score this season?

Neal has had productive goal spurts early in a season before — not to the tune of seven goals in three games, but he has had good runs before. And, oddly enough, he has done it every second year since 2013.

He scored five goals in three games in November of 2013.

November 23rd @ Montreal he scored 2-0-2.
November 25th @ Boston he tallied 2-1-3.
November 27th v. Toronto he had 1-1-2

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He had 22 shots in these three games and scored three powerplay goals. Neal was injured in the first game of the season that year on October 3rd. He missed almost six weeks and returned on November 9th. So his hot streak came in his first ten games. Neal finished that season with 27 goals in 59 games with the Penguins. He produced 0.45 goals/game and prorated over 82 games it came out to 37 goals.

In October of 2015 he had another hot streak.

October 15th @ NYI he scored 1-1-2
October 17th @ Ottawa he produced 2-0-2.
October 20th v. Tampa Bay he had 2-1-3.

He fired 18 shots on goal and had two powerplay goals in these three games. He finished the season with 31 goals (0.37 goals/game) in 82 games with the Predators.

In October of 2017 he started out on fire.

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October 6th @ Dallas he scored 2-0-2.
October 7th @ Arizona he had 1-0-1
October 10th v. Arizona he scored 2-0-2

He had eleven shots and one powerplay goal. He did score again in his fourth game so he had six goals after the first four games. He finished with 25 goals (0.35 goals/game) in 71 games with Las Vegas.

Neal’s best goal scoring season was in 2011/2012 with the Penguins when he scored 40 goals in 80 games. He scored a goal in 32 of the games he played. He never had a major hot streak, he just scored quite regularly.

He has seven goals in his last three games on 13 shots and five have come on the powerplay.

He’s had good starts before and that has led to seasons of 25, 27 and 31 goals. He missed 23 games when he scored 27 goals, so it is hard to predict what he can do the rest of the way in Edmonton.

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We can look at the past to get a sense of what might occur, but that is only a projection. This is a different team, with different teammates and even Neal is different as a player and person.

I think it would be safe to say his hot start sets up him to score 25 goals, but that is predicated on him staying healthy. Injuries are impossible to predict.

Neal’s goal/game average over those three years equates to 32 goals in an 82-game season. Over 72 games it would be 29.

I don’t know how many goals he will score, but after this start I don’t think 30 is unrealistic at all. Consider his career averages. He has averaged 3.03 shots/game over his career and he has a 11.9SH%.

If he plays all 78 remaining games and sticks to those averages he’d score 28 more goals on 236 shots. If he misses ten games (and sticking with averages) he’d score 24 more goals.

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But the major wildcard is how good he feels right now, and who is linemates are, especially on the powerplay. The Oilers PP was good before he arrived, and with McDavid, Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the top unit it was going to be good again, but Neal adds another wrinkle. He has fit right in on the powerplay. He has scored goals from different spots in different ways. He has banged home a rebound, scored on a quick release from the right side of the net, he has deflected a shot from the slot and he’s redirected a slap pass from the left side. He’s shown his goal scoring instincts and abilities in different ways, from different areas on the man advantage.

Leon Draisaitl led the Oilers with 16 goals on the PP last year. He had five between October-December and then added eleven from January-April. Neal already has five. He will slow down, but even if he only scores two PP goals the rest of this month and two each month from November-March, he’ll finish with 17 PP goals. A hot start like this has made it so he doesn’t have to go on a tear to have an excellent season on the PP.

I can only assume for Oilers fans it is much more enjoyable to wonder how many goals Neal will score, rather than the alternative: wondering who will score.

PARTING SHOTS…

Every time Mikko Koskinen allows a goal on his glove side people are going to freak out. We saw it last night on twitter. But here’s the thing. Last night wasn’t a bad goal. That was a great shot by Kyle Palmeiri. He is a good shooter and was in a good spot on the ice. He ripped it over the shoulder. Just like Leon Draisaitl made a great shot in the shootout, sometimes you simply have to applaud the shooter.

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But the thing about that goal was Koskinen’s hands weren’t down. That is what he has worked on. Last year, when his glove hand was a noticeable weakness his hands were down. They weren’t on that goal.

I don’t see Koskinen as an elite goalie, but he doesn’t have to be elite to be effective. He needs to give his team a chance to win, and that is exactly what he did last night. He was very good in the third, made some big saves in OT and then was perfect in the shootout. If he plays like that most nights Oilersnation should be happy. Don’t expect him to be what he isn’t. He is not elite. He is not paid like an top-tier goalie, and what he needs to be is competent and competitive. He was last night.

Kevin Woodley from In Goal Magazine text me this regarding the Palmieri goal.

“He even shifts into that one properly on release so mostly that’s a skill player hitting his spot from close range on an odd man rush. Sometimes you just gotta tip your cap. It is not even so much high glove as it is by the ear; hit that spot over the shoulder and it almost always goes in.”

I felt a realistic SV% for him was between 0.910-0.914 and outlined why. He is 2-0 this year with a .914SV% and a 2.42 GAA. Those numbers (not going undefeated of course) are ideally what the Oilers would want. If he finishes the season with higher than a .914sv% you should be thrilled.

THING TO WATCH…

One area the Oilers will look to improve is generating shots on goal. They are averaging a league low 25.6/game. Tampa is 30th at 27.8. It is early, and while the SF are down, the Oilers aren’t giving up many shots. They sit 12th in SA/game at 30.8. The Oilers have had lots of offensive zone time, but it hasn’t resulted in shots on goal. That is the next step in their progression. Their attention to detail defensively has improved immensely, which has led to much less time defending. I like their possession in the offensive zone, but they need to start putting more pucks on net.

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