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Photo Credit: © Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

How Connor McDavid has significantly improved his defensive play

 Around the hockey world, it’s essentially unanimous that Connor McDavid is the most dynamic offensive player in the NHL. 

After all, he’s consistently near or at the top of the NHL scoring race, season in and out, with dazzling highlight-reel goals or assists every couple of games. His brilliant combination of speed, agility, skill, play-making, and transition is unmatched, and his offence is nothing short of generational.

However, the primary critique against McDavid has quite frequently been his two-hundred-foot game. When Edmonton lost against Chicago and Winnipeg in the play-ins/playoffs in the prior two seasons, some folks were quick to place the blame on McDavid’s defensive game. 

Even this season, during Edmonton’s brutal 2-11-2 stretch, McDavid’s two-way play was criticized by some, in spite of the team’s brutal play without their superstars.

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I highly disagree with these notions for several reasons. In this piece, I’ll utilize on-ice metrics, microstats, and video evidence as to why McDavid has significantly improved his overall game in the past two seasons, and why his defensive issues are overblown.

*All stats via EvolvingHockey unless stated otherwise

In prior seasons, McDavid’s defensive metrics were abysmal

*EVD is calculated using a variety of stats, but suppression and prevention of Expected Goals and Shot Attempts against are the primary variables. RAPM is a model developed by EvolvingHockey that adjusts for a player’s teammates and competition to isolate their on-ice impact. This method isn’t perfect, but it’s still useful, nonetheless

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It’s pretty safe to say that McDavid’s prior defensive results were dreadful.

McDavid previously played a risky style of end-to-end transition hockey, which translated to exceptional offence, but would often cause Edmonton to be prone to allowing chances off the rush the other way. He was often too deep in the offensive zone and would be one of the last forwards recovering back to his own zone. 

His play in the d-zone wasn’t satisfactory either, as he would occasionally glide near the top of his zone, nearly “cheating” for offence. 

Edmonton had a plethora of other issues during that time span, so it’s foolish to criticize McDavid solely for the team’s struggles. I also wouldn’t entirely blame McDavid for occasionally cheating for offence, since the rest of the team seldom scored without him. In spite of these issues, McDavid still remained the best player in the league in regards to the overall impact.

Nonetheless, it’s undeniable that he was quite high-event early on in his career.

McDavid’s defence saw a huge improvement in the past two seasons

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However, McDavid has significantly improved in these facets. McDavid has had a positive impact on suppressing shot volume and xGA in the past two seasons, as shown above. His EVD is superior to 71% of the league’s forwards. Furthermore:

Out of all forwards with a minimum of 500 even-strength minutes from 17-18, McDavid’s improvement in EVD (+8.5) ranks 2nd in the league during that time frame. It’s evident he’s placed effort into enhancing his overall performance as of recent.

Some may question why I’ve used xGA and CA, and not actual goals against. I’m not the most avid fan of using GA for skaters, due to the extent of the impact that goaltenders have over them. 

A player’s defensive duty is to decrease the workload and limit the shots and chances that their goalies face, but they have little control over the rate at which those goalies make those saves. Numerous strong defensive players on poor teams have their goal share hampered by goaltending. I still utilize it, and I’ve referenced GA in past articles, but I’ve never placed a huge emphasis on it, especially for top players that play significant minutes on poor teams.

However, even if you disagree with my stance on goals against for skaters, McDavid’s relative GA/60 is at the 75th percentile this season, or in other words, he’s superior at suppressing goals against than 75% of the league. His RAPM GA/60 is at the 78th percentile. McDavid’s GA results this season would only further reinforce my argument, as he’s currently at a career-high in GA/60.

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In addition, the output of a different model, Micah Blake McCurdy’s model (@IneffectiveMath), also has McDavid as a positive defensive player (shown here). It’s worth mentioning that McCurdy’s model goes further than other public models and attempts to account for coaching impact as well.

Using Patrick Bacon’s model (the Tableau for 20-22 data is linked here, these stats are commonly seen on JFresh player cards), McDavid’s EVD is at the 50th percentile in the past two seasons, which is roughly/about average. 

I’m unsure why there’s a decent discrepancy between this model and both of EvolvingHockey and McCurdy’s models, as the latter have McDavid as an above-average/good defensive player. 

Nonetheless, all of them support the fact that McDavid has markedly improved his performance in his own end.

I don’t utilize these statistics that frequently, but it’s worth mentioning that McDavid is 51.6% on faceoffs in the past two seasons. He was at 45.0% on the dot in the three seasons prior to that. McDavid has also improved from 2.8 EV Giveaways/60 in 17-20, to 2.2 Giveaways/60 from 20-22. 

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Given this large variety of metrics, it should be quite clear that McDavid has markedly improved his two-way play since his early career.

The microstats and the video-tape

Courtesy of Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine), here’s a brief overview of McDavid’s microstats.

McDavid is superb at retrieving the puck in the defensive zone, and converting them into zone exits. Although he’s a phenomenal transitional player, he could improve his rate of Failed Entries, but the rest of his defensive microstats are quite encouraging. They suggest that McDavid seems much more involved in his own zone, and much more determined to assist his team defensively.

Furthermore, I’ve watched almost every Oilers game this season, but I decided to re-watch Edmonton’s five most recent games (courtesy of NHL Live), and tried to pay attention solely to McDavid’s play throughout all three zones, as I wanted to see if my eyes matched these results. What are the exact causes for his notable improvement.?

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Here are some (not all, I clipped about 13-14 plays in just the prior five games alone, but I’ll include 8 of them here) observations I noted:

1. McDavid backchecks more frequently and is more actively involved in his own-zone

As stated previously, McDavid would often be the last forward coming into his own zone. However, I feel this is much less frequent now. His overall defensive awareness continues to improve, and I feel he backchecks more consistently.

On the play above, Svechnikov (CAR #37) makes a superb pass from the corner, and onto Aho’s stick (CAR #20) in the slot, nearly causing a potential high danger opportunity. Luckily, a back-checking McDavid disrupts Aho’s attempted shot, and he assists Nurse (EDM #25) in safely chipping the puck out of the zone without icing it.

This is an interesting clip. Nurse (EDM #25) and Barrie (EDM #22) are engaged in a two-on-two puck battle behind the net with two Tampa forwards. Hyman (EDM #18) is the first forward back, and should stop in front to prevent any net-front passes, but he doesn’t. However, McDavid swings and uses his stick to prevent the pass to Killorn in-front (TBL #17).

This was another hard-working shift by McDavid against Tampa. Pay close attention to him and Point (TBL #21). At the beginning, he doesn’t overcommit when Point has possession down-low. McDavid stays with Point for the entire shift, consistently applies pressure, keeps him to the outside, and gives him minimal room and options to make plays. It eventually results in the puck leaving the zone.

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Here, Lagesson (EDM #84) makes a poor attempt of a pass to McDavid, and the puck lands on Zuccarello’s stick (MIN #36). McDavid rushes back, and applies enough pressure on Zuccarello to make it an easy zone denial for Niemelainen (EDM #80), and then McDavid recovers the puck himself.

For the clip above, here’s two defensive plays by McDavid on the same shift. First, he disrupts a pass directed to Spurgeon (MIN #46). Later that shift, his first attempt at denying Kaprizov (MIN #97) is unsuccessful, as he’s in an unfavorable position subsequent to covering for a defenceman’s pinch. Although he could have made a better decision than simply skating forward towards the oncoming Kaprizov, he stays with the play, slows down the entry, and eventually causes Kaprizov to lose possession with the assistance of Ceci (EDM #2).

2. McDavid is excellent at converting defensive plays into transition the other way

Unlike previously, McDavid is more involved in the corners, and is superb at transforming recoveries deep or broken plays into a zone entry in the opposite direction.

A puck battle ensues in the corner with two Edmonton defencemen and two Tampa forwards. Stamkos (#91) initially retrieves the puck, but McDavid’s aggressive pressure causes Stamkos to have little space to go anywhere, and it helps Edmonton regain possession and start a rush attempt the other way. McDavid also draws a penalty in the process. Overall, great stick positioning here by McDavid.

Initially, McDavid almost successfully recovers the puck, but three Minnesota forwards pressure him simultaneously, causing him to lose it. However, he stays connected to the play, carefully tracks Eriksson Ek’s movement (MIN #14), and skates towards him in the corner without overcommitting. He recovers the puck in the corner once Eriksson Ek fails to obtain it, and makes a nifty bounce pass past Greenway (MIN #18) to Nurse, which plays a crucial role in starting the breakout (note, this is at the end of a pretty long shift for him).

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The Flyers attempt a breakout and McDavid rushes back, using his size and strength to disrupt Konecny’s (PHI #11) entry attempt. This causes Ceci (EDM #2) to gain possession, although his bank pass nearly fails, but McDavid’s quick instincts and speed turn this into a zone carry in the opposite direction.

This is further backed up by the microstats I previously provided. McDavid’s primary defensive strength is using his agility to convert his retrievals and recoveries into transition chances the other way.

3. McDavid’s possession game has evolved, which consequently results in less time spent in his own zone

In the past two seasons, McDavid has been able to enhance his puck protection skills and polish his performance in the offensive zone, and has truly become a dominant possession player. 

There are numerous shifts every game in which McDavid hems the opposition in their own zone for lengthy periods of time, a rate higher than his prior seasons. His passes are less risky, and he’s blowing the zone at a lower rate. 

CF% is often used as a proxy for possession. Relative to teammates, McDavid’s CF +/- /60 was at 2.8 from 17-20, but it’s at 9.7 (haha) in the past two seasons.

So, not only is McDavid notably superior at making strong defensive plays, he’s spending much more time in the offensive zone, which consequently leads to less time in his own zone. His game is gradually moving from being a risky, high-event game to a more balanced, dominant possession-style one. 

In other terms, McDavid has managed to transform his offensive game in a manner that also improves his defensive results.

Conclusion

Connor McDavid isn’t close to being a perfect defensive player. He’s not at the level where we can call him “great” in this facet, either. McDavid is certainly not immune to making defensive errors, and there are still occasions where he nonchalantly “glides” coming back into his own zone. This isn’t the primary point of this piece.

However, I feel that he’s making these defensive errors at a far inferior rate. Today, it’s exceedingly false to state that McDavid is some dreadful defensive liability that holds the team back. It simply isn’t true.

In addition, McDavid ranks 2nd among Edmonton forwards in 5v5 xGA/60 since the coaching change. There’s a legitimate possibility that his defensive stats could be borderline-excellent under Woodcroft’s system.

Numerous players struggle in their own end in their earlier/younger years, so regardless of the coaching change, it would be expected of McDavid to improve even further as the years pass, similar to Sidney Crosby’s career. In spite of his defensive reputation, Crosby’s xGA impact in the regular season was never higher than the 65th percentile until 2017-18, when he was 30 (!!).

To summarize, McDavid is a generational offensive player combined with above-average defensive metrics in the past two seasons; that shouldn’t be considered “one-dimensional” by any means, and he fully deserves credit for the strides he’s made in his overall performance. 

The days of an exceedingly high-event superstar seem to be gradually coming to an end, as we’re currently witnessing the best player in the world make improvements to his play. For Connor McDavid, it should only go uphill from here.

Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)