The Edmonton Oilers have had what you’d have to call a lot of surprising success this season.
They have seven wins from eight games, putting them 20 percent of the way to last year’s total in the first couple weeks of the season. And what isn’t surprising about this success is that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are in the driver’s seat.
As discussed in this space previously, that comes in part because both players are getting heavy workloads. One thing Dave Tippett has clearly done in his new role behind the Oilers bench is to identify the team’s strengths (McDavid and Draisaitl) and weaknesses (almost everyone else on the roster) and worked to get everything just right. It stands to reason, then, that Tippett should want to see these guys on the ice as much as humanly possible.
There’s little question that two athletes of this calibre are capable of playing 24ish minutes a night, even at their high pace, for as much as 82 games. The fact that time on ice and player usage hasn’t really changed much in decades of hockey, despite more being done to make sure elite athletes cut out anything that would lead to something other than supreme conditioning, is probably an indictment of the sport. One wouldn’t be surprised if McDavid could play 27 minutes a night at least somewhat consistently, the way many top defencemen do.
But let’s say things hold as they are: The obvious question the Oilers have to ask is how long McDavid and Draisaitl can keep scoring like they have. Because you can think McDavid is the best player to come along in decades and you can think Draisaitl is a perfect companion, but the fact is they’re on pace for 174 and 164 points, respectively, and at some point that’s just not going to last.
(And yes, let’s acknowledge here that to separate out “Oilers Success” from “McDavid Success” is a little unfair because the player is on the team, so any success he has is by definition team success. That said, you know what everyone’s talking about when this comes up, so chill out.)
Just a season ago, it took McDavid — the unequivocal best player on earth — 10 games to get to 17 points, and while “two games” doesn’t seem like a lot, when you’re adding it to just eight, it’s a proportionally huge percentage. Last season, Nikita Kucherov set the cap-era scoring record with 128 points, and it still took him 15 games to hit 17 points.
So far, McDavid and Draisaitl have combined to create about 5.5 expected goals, but they’ve scored 11. When they were on the ice, all the rest of their teammates combined to create 5.3, but scored just as many goals. You wouldn’t expect either number to last, but in particular, the assists for both should be a lot harder to come by because while they may have elite finishing ability, their teammates do not, even if McDavid and Draisaitl can set them up for plenty of tap-ins.
Therefore, to expect McDavid to keep doing this is probably too big of an ask, right? Even the most elite of the elite players aren’t capable of this. This comes with the acknowledgement that Kucherov had his minutes managed, mainly because Tampa could afford to put him on the bench in tight games with the understanding that another set of All-Star-type forwards was coming over the boards next.
McDavid has no such luxury, and you have to say there will come a time when this team isn’t running at 42 percent on the power play and shooting 14 percent in all situations. Let alone the fact that a Mike Smith/Mikko Koskinen battery is in the .920 range. That’s just not how it works in this sport.
But you also have to say: If anyone today is capable of changing the way the sport works on a fundamental level, it is McDavid. Especially because, insane as it is to say, he’s still improving at just 22 years old. Aging curves being what they are, plus this even-for-him unsustainably hot start, it’s not only possible, but increasingly likely that he clears 130 points this year.
He played at a 122-point pace last year, missing four games. Much like the Oilers themselves, it’s nice to bank all these points early in the season, and they’ll definitely help when things are all said and done. If he “only” plays at that 122-point pace the rest of the way, this start will put him on a pace to pass Kucherov’s record from last season. He can also go beyond that if anything resembling this pace continues.
It’s not going to surprise anyone that as McDavid goes so go the Oilers, but he has more help than he did in the past. James Neal’s going to clean up garbage at the netfront that many past Oilers wingers simply could not, and Draisaitl also continues to naturally improve given his young age.
The little-something-extra Tippett brings to the table is that the teams he coaches are often quite good defensively, and even if the goaltending doesn’t hold up to the current level (it probably won’t) that won’t stop the McDavid/Draisaitl goal bonanza. As long as those two can produce like we expect, and the rest of the roster doesn’t absolutely bleed goals (not necessarily a guarantee), Tippett will be in a position to deploy them favourably for some time to come.
The Oilers have needed something like this for long enough that they’re not even going to ask about sustainability right now. So while the current run of success won’t last, for superstar or team, it’s at least a nice foundation to build off.
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