The Oilers have a long list of concerns, but Connor McDavid not being his usual self is near the top

Photo credit:© Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
7 months ago
With yet another disappointing loss to the Dallas Stars on Thursday night, the Edmonton Oilers slip to a record of 2-6-1 in their first nine games of the 2023-24 season. They rank 30th in the NHL and are closer to last place than they are to a top-three spot in a weak Pacific Division.
It feels that nearly everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong. I simply cannot think of a better way to summarize their start to the season.
Edmonton continues to win the possession game but cannot efficiently finish their chances, while every mistake they seem to make ends up in the back of their net. Half of their forwards have yet to record a single 5v5 point. Edmonton’s PK has been awful, while their PP has been nowhere close to their level of dominance from last season.
Two weeks back, I wrote about why the Oilers were struggling in transition and how it was a huge factor for their record. These issues have persisted throughout the games since that piece, as Edmonton has scored just four rush goals at 5v5 in nine games while allowing 13 against. 
There are a variety of reasons for their inadequate rush defence. One reason is personnel, as this defensive core is simply unequipped to defend against fast, dynamic transitional teams effectively. Their systematic changes may also play a role, as Edmonton switched to a 1-1-3 NZ forecheck this season, which was successful when Woodcroft initially arrived in Edmonton. Still, their execution of the system has been lacking to begin the year. Of course, part of their high rush GA numbers is also attributed to goaltending; Skinner and Campbell have combined for a dreadful 88.2% save percentage on rush shots. Not to mention, a lot of their rush GA have simply been the result of their players making careless and preventable errors, which was evident against Dallas. 
But what happened to Edmonton’s rush offence
Edmonton’s rush defence was never elite to begin with, but in regards to their rush offence, the Oilers ranked second in the NHL in rush goals with 79 last season per SportLogIQ. Edmonton nearly averaged a rush goal per game in 2022-23. What has gone so horribly wrong in 2023-24 so far?
I would say part of it is poor luck, as Edmonton’s shooting percentage is quite low. It should regress upwards, although there is a lack of natural finishing talent on the roster at 5v5. However, I don’t believe the lack of finishing is the primary cause. 
Perhaps the most significant factor for their mediocre rush offence is that Connor McDavid simply has not been his typical self.
There are a plethora of things that make McDavid so special, and one of them is his outstanding transitional play. When healthy, McDavid is the best transitional player in the league. How he can consistently enter the offensive zone with clear control and beat defenders to create high-danger scoring chances is unparalleled, and the career highlight reel of his rush plays is essentially never-ending. Both he and Draisaitl have undoubtedly been the primary drivers of the team’s rush offence.
But unfortunately, McDavid has not looked healthy this season. 
In his first five games of 2023-24, McDavid’s transitional results were still well above average, but he was not performing at his typical standards at all. I already suspected he was playing through something at the time. He then sustained a mid-body injury in the third period of their fifth game of the season against Winnipeg, and the Oilers announced he would be out for 1-2 weeks. Still, he would return in exactly a week from the announcement, playing in the Heritage Classic against Calgary. However, McDavid does not look 100% at all to my eye.
Edmonton has loaded McDavid and Draisaitl on the top line, but McDavid seems to be the winger on that line. Draisaitl has primarily taken the faceoffs, with 40 faceoff attempts at 5v5 in the past two games, while McDavid has just five faceoff attempts. That’s already a big red flag, indicating he is not entirely healthy yet.
Let’s go through the impact of McDavid’s injury on his play. Firstly, here’s a look at his zone entry results (data via our manual tracking project):
Interestingly, McDavid’s total zone entry per 60 rate has managed to increase this season. However, the rest of these metrics have declined. While his rate of 17.8 controlled entries per 60 is fine, it’s not at the level of his typical rates. His controlled entry percentage has dropped by 16 percent, as he averaged 5 uncontrolled entries per 60 in 2022-23, but that rate has nearly doubled to 9.6 in 2023-24. McDavid has been dumping the puck into the zone at much higher rates this year, while he has been less efficient at entering the zone with possession.
Furthermore, although McDavid’s raw entry stats still remain well above average, he’s generating far less off the rush than he usually does. 22 percent of McDavid’s controlled entries have led to a quality chance this season; I didn’t track this stat in the 2022-23 regular-season, but if I could make a rough estimate, I suspect that number would have been close to ~40 percent (it was 34 percent in the playoffs, where I would argue McDavid still wasn’t at the top of his game).
Not to mention, McDavid’s entry success percentage has dropped by 8 percent, as his failed entry rate has significantly increased (not in a good way). He’s making a lot more turnovers at the opposition blueline.
McDavid simply hasn’t attacked the offensive zone at the same speed and precision as he usually does, and opposition defenders have had a much easier time limiting and defending him off the rush. That’s a big reason as to why Edmonton isn’t generating as much off the rush this year.
Additionally, McDavid is shooting far less than he usually does.
Now, McDavid’s passing has generally been fine, as he leads the team with 12.1 scoring chance assists per 60. But McDavid’s individual shooting has significantly decreased, as he is averaging 5.1 shots per 60 less, and his expected goals per 60 has essentially halved. As a result, he has just one 5v5 goal in 151 minutes, a far cry from his excellent 1.5 5v5 goals per 60 rate last season. He does not look like the 64-goal scorer from 2022-23.
Another area where McDavid has taken a hit is on the power play. In 2022-23, Edmonton averaged 13.3 PP goals per hour; only one other team since 2007 has scored at a rate above 11.0 in a single season. Edmonton’s PP was simply outstanding, to the point that there would be instances where the PP could nearly single-handedly win them games,
This year, Edmonton’s PP is at 8.3 goals per hour, ranking 11th in the league. Still above average, but nowhere near as dangerous as it was last season. McDavid’s injury has likely played a major role here, with his primary PP points per hour rate being cut in half.
Overall, McDavid has a negative 5v5 goal differential for the first time in his career, and ranks 16th on the team in expected goal differential. Without Draisaitl on-ice, McDavid’s line has been outscored 0 to 4 overall. 
While McDavid’s injury was not exactly specified by the Oilers organization, his injury may have been related to his oblique, making it difficult to shoot, take draws, and get into puck battles. This would make perfect sense as to why he isn’t taking any faceoffs and why he’s shooting the puck less. It makes me wonder if McDavid was rushed, and if he should even be playing at all at the moment. Unfortunately, this organization does possess a history of mishandling injuries.
However, is there a chance McDavid was also battling something before his injury against Winnipeg? It’s a small sample, but he didn’t look “explosive” as he usually does at the very beginning of October either.
Of course, a lot of this is simply speculation, but the fact is that McDavid does not look like his true self, and I believe that is worth discussing.
Now, with all of that in mind, one may argue that McDavid’s results are still quite strong, and that is absolutely true. His zone entry rates are certainly nothing to scoff at, and he has 9 points in 7 games, equating to a very strong 1.29 PPG rate. If any other player had his current results, we would likely be discussing how great of a start that player has had to the year. McDavid’s “underwhelming” start to the season is simply relative to his usual standards, which are understandably sky-high.
It just goes to show Edmonton’s reliance on McDavid’s brilliance throughout his entire career. 
I think back to the 2022 Playoffs, where the Oilers made the conference finals, the farthest they’ve ever gone in the playoffs during the McDavid era. With 33 points in 16 games, I believe that was the best I’ve ever seen McDavid play, and that’s a pretty high bar to clear. The Oilers out-scored opponents at an outstanding ratio of 31 to 17 with McDavid on-ice, while they were out-scored 15 to 26 without him. If McDavid didn’t go supernova, there is a very good chance the team would have been eliminated in round one. 
When McDavid is at the top of his game, both he and Draisaitl often end up masking Edmonton’s issues. Throughout their entire careers, Edmonton has often relied on their two superstars to out-score the team’s mistakes. When McDavid isn’t averaging multiple points and taking over games as he usually does, the team’s flaws end up being a lot more apparent and visible. 
McDavid missing two games and “only” producing at a 105-point pace is enough for the team to have one of their worst starts in franchise history. Even though Draisaitl remains excellent off the rush, and Foegele has significantly improved his rush play in a top-six role, McDavid’s rush offence declining is enough for the entire team’s overall transitional offence to collapse. 
Just to clarify, this is not a question of his ability in any way, and this piece is not suggesting McDavid has been the problem; my concern lies with the fact that he doesn’t seem healthy. Considering how reliant this team has been on McDavid to take over games, that’s a big issue. My fear is that McDavid may have been rushed back, and/or he was already dealing with something prior to his injury against Winnipeg. I hope that fear is wrong.
In 2022-23, the Oilers scored 3.97 goals per hour, and allowed 3.07 goals against per hour. In 2023-24 thus far, they’re at 2.77 GF/60, and a 3.99 GA/60. Defensively, that’s an increase of 0.92 goals against per hour, which is quite concerning, but offensively, that’s a decrease of 1.20 goals per hour. Edmonton moved from 1st in the league in goals last season, to 22nd overall this season. So while defence remains a huge issue, Edmonton has actually seen a greater decline in offensive output, which is why I believe McDavid not being 100% is one of their most significant concerns.
Luckily, the Oilers still possess plenty of time and opportunity to rebound. They have a 0.968 PDO (proxy for puck luck), which would be the lowest of all time. While the team has numerous issues they must address, there will be some eventual upward regression.
However, with half of their forward group yet to record a single 5v5 point through nine games, Edmonton’s hopes for this season will largely rely on Connor McDavid staying healthy and performing at his usual standards. 
*All microstats used in this piece are via our tracking project, all other stats are via Natural Stat Trick unless mentioned otherwise
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

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