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NHL: SZNAJDER – Connor McDavid – Less is more in historic season

EDMONTON, AB - MARCH 16: Edmonton Oilers Center Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his goal and 131st point in the third period of the Edmonton Oilers game versus the Dallas Stars on March 16, 2023 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, AB. (Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire)

After being stuck in the wild card race for most of the season, the Oilers are now one point out of the top spot in the Western Conference after a fantastic month of March. They are undefeated in regulation over their past 10 games and have been firing on all cylinders since the trade deadline. The acquisitions of Mattias Ekholm and Nick Bjugstad have helped, but everybody knows the engine of Edmonton is their star players and it’s hard to overstate how good they’ve been.

Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are the first trio of players on the same team to record 100 points each since the 1995-96 season when Ron Francis, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr did it. McDavid’s season alone is flirting with modern NHL history, as you have to go back to an era when ice time wasn’t even recorded to find the last player to top 150 points. Held off the scoresheet in only two games since the end of November, we have been seeing some special hockey from the Oilers captain and it’s a different type of domination than in years past.

McDavid is no stranger to gaudy point totals, regularly leading the league in that department. As scoring around the league goes up, McDavid has gone with the flow and has started to lap the field in recent years. This year is similar to his 2021 season where he managed 105 points in only 56 games, but it’s a different shade of domination than it was then. First of all, it’s against a full NHL schedule and he’s become a more lethal goal-scorer. He has found the back of the net 62 times this year and is tied with David Pastrnak for the league lead in five-on-five goals with 30. McDavid’s explosion from a consistent goal-scorer to running away with the Rocket Richard trophy is partially due to the Oilers nuclear power play, where McDavid himself has become more of the triggerman but he has also been taking more of the reins at even strength when it comes to taking the shot and making the extra play.

Taking a closer look at some of the five-on-five goals in his video, you’ll see a lot of them coming off the rush, most of them in usual Connor McDavid fashion where he blows by a defender to create a one-on-one with the goaltender, but there’s other creative things in here. Notice how in this one he cuts to the middle and is able to quickly get the puck through the goaltender’s five-hole once it’s exposed and it’s in the back of the net before he even knows what happens.

There’s also him finding some open spaces from bad angles, much like Sidney Crosby has done for years. He also doesn’t have to quarterback everything in the offensive zone for the Oilers to score, as he was able to get himself open for a couple of rebound goals and locate the puck behind the net to capitalize on some reactionary plays that the defense had no chance on. Defenders already have to respect his playmaking, so there’s been more open shots for him along the wing and he’s done a masterful job of using this to his advantage over the years. These are shots you’d want your goaltender to stop, but a player like McDavid is going to find an opening if it’s there, which he has more times than not.

It’s the little things like this that add up to make a historic season when you’re already an elite talent like McDavid. What also helps is that Edmonton isn’t a two-man show anymore. There’s been more of a real supporting cast around the Oilers two stars than there ever has been before, and it goes beyond just scoring goals. For years, the Oilers were a team that could compete with anybody when McDavid was on the ice and would constantly fish pucks out of their own net when he was on the bench. This year, the Oilers own 53% of the five-on-five goals when McDavid is on the ice and 51% when he isn’t. Last year, they owned only 46% of the goals when McDavid was on the bench and a dreadful 42% in the previous season. To say they’ve improved their team play would be an understatement and it has helped ease the burden on the Oilers star.

It’s interesting to dive into from a statistical standpoint because despite McDavid’s incredible point-production, he hasn’t had to be the Oilers lifeblood at five-on-five. Compare his 2021 season to now and there’s a stark difference in how much he is creating on his own.

In 2021, McDavid was on an island when it came to transition offense. Frequently going end-to-end, splitting the defense and having one of the best seasons in the modern NHL era. This year, he’s still been great but closer to the rest of the pack of elite players when it comes to creating off entries.

One could read this as he hasn’t been as good at even strength as he was in the shortened season, but another way to look at is that he hasn’t had to be Superman for the Oilers to win. Think about how many zone entries happen in a game, now think about how many times a player can get behind the defense in those. It doesn’t happen that often per game and while McDavid can make magic happen, doing that so many times per game wears down one player and makes it easier for the other team to build a game plan against them. The supporting cast has shown up now and while it might not look like much on the chart, this adds up when you have two players producing at an elite rate. Draisaitl’s own rush offense improving is a big help and when you factor in the work linemates from Nugent-Hopkins, Hyman and Kane, this becomes a lethal top-six that can pitch in by-committee. Zach Hyman in particular is having a marvelous season as McDavid’s running mate, showing that he can be more than just a net-front presence to the best player in the league and someone who can help him drive play.

Then you have the lower line players, who have been a rotating cast for most of the year, but the mainstays like Ryan McLeod and Derek Ryan have found ways to contribute. They’ve helped turn the Oilers depth from a black hole to something that can at least tread water while their stars catch a breather. Sometimes that comes in the form of a good defensive shift where they disrupt and other times they create some basic low-to-high offense to help kill the clock. It’s been an underrated part of Edmonton’s resurgence in the second half of the season and sometimes even they help pitch in on the offense like this:

It's easier to play the game you want when you’re stacking good shifts together and this is what the Oilers have built over the past month. McDavid has more room to operate in the offensive zone because he’s not the only person defenses have to focus on now. His improvements with his own shooting have made defending him more of a lose-lose situation because they respect his playmaking more and is mastering the art of taking the open space that comes with it. All of this becomes easier for a star when the other lines are doing their job because while success revolves around them, it’s tough when they always have to create magic out of thin air.

This year, Edmonton’s finding a balance. They’ve owned at least 50% of the Expected Goals in all but five of their last 20 games and the Oilers are less of a “have McDavid and the power play bail us out” team than they were in November. All of this has made it easier for their star and in turn, he is having his most successful season to date.