There’s a fine line between expecting defensive reliability and stifling offensive creativity. It’s a line Edmonton Oilers’ coach Dave Tippett is trying to walk with Leon Draisaitl and, to a lesser extent, Connor McDavid right now with the Oilers in a tailspin.
On one hand, Tippett can’t throw the shackles on McDavid and Draisaitl, who sit atop the NHL scoring race, just because the Oilers have collectively hit the ditch and are on a 7-11-2 slide after a 5-1 loss to the Calgary Flames Friday. On the other hand, Tippett can’t ignore the lack of results he’s seeing and some unflattering numbers beside the names of his two best players.
For all they’ve produced – McDavid has 22-41-63 and Draisaitl checks in with 22-39-61 – both are struggling in the plus-minus category. As limited, many say flawed, as that statistic is, they’ve come up on the wrong side of the ledger too often lately. That’s especially true for Draisaitl, who is minus-18 overall and has been a minus-player in 15 of his last 16 games (minus-25).
Plus-minus doesn’t provide the whole picture, like how the Oilers’ goaltending has been on a slide lately, to name just one aspect, but even putting the numbers aside, it’s obvious Draisaitl is enduring a rough stretch, with the Calgary game being the latest example of that. Tippett knows it. Draisaitl knows it. The trick now is finding balance on both sides of the puck.
WHAT THEY SAY
“He’s struggling, it’s been a struggle for him,” Tippett said of Draisaitl, who was minus-3 against Calgary and the same in the previous game against Vancouver. “He’s a guy that has to continue to work at it. “Drai has been chasing the game because he’s trying to win, he’s not out there trying to get minuses.
“He’s trying to win and it’s got harder and harder for him because other teams are bearing down on him. We need team cohesion all the way through and not rely on those guys as much and make sure those guys know that we don’t have to rely on them as much, we can rely on a team game.”
The way I see it, a significant part of the problem is that Draisaitl gets exposed because his shifts are often too long. He leads all NHL forwards in average ice time at 22:39 (McDavid is second at 22:14) and his average shift length is 1:01 – which is second only to McDavid at 1:02. That’s too long on both counts. How many times have we seen Draisaitl struggled to get back defensively or make a costly giveaway because he’s completely gassed?
“We want to win, Connor and I are here to win,” Draisaitl said after the team skated Saturday. “We want to play offensively, because that’s what we’re supposed to do. That’s our job as much as it is defending. I can only speak for myself, but I have to find a better line between defending and limiting the risk in my game, where the defending part comes first.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
That’s easier said than done of course, but it has to change if the Oilers are going to have success as a team. For context, McDavid, Draisaitl and Patrick Kane (minus-1) are the only players among the top 22 players in points who are minuses. You have to go all the way down to Tomas Hertl, who is 61st in scoring and is minus-20, to do worse than Draisaitl’s minus-18. Again, not a be-all and end-all statistic, but an indication all is not well.
It goes without saying the Oilers are absolutely sunk without the creativity and offensive production McDavid and Draisaitl provide, but 100-point seasons for both of them only go so far. We know that much. There has to be more. “We know we’re capable of doing it, but at some point talking is not good enough. We have to do it,” Draisaitl said. “We’ve been talking about it for a while now. Talking can only do so much.”
Actions speak louder than words, and action starts at the top.