The armchair psychoanalysts at Toronto’s BioSteel camp this week tried to assess why Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl seemed so glum.
They’re well-paid, young, and among the best players in their sport. Shouldn’t they be excited for the clean slate after missing the post-season for the third time in four years since McDavid came into the league?
Well, the answer to that question is complicated. On the one hand, you never know who’s going to be the team everyone describes as not great on paper but ends up being world-beaters for a good chunk of the season. Last year it was the Islanders. The year before that, it was Vegas. And in 2016-17, oh I see here it was the Oilers.
So yes, a team with talents like McDavid, Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Oscar Klefbom, among others, is perfectly capable of running out to a better-than-expected 60 games that basically punches its post-season ticket. But the odds of that happening seem pretty low. And if that’s the case, McDavid is looking at another seven-month slog that ends with Edmonton hitting the golf course in mid-April, just like it did the previous two seasons.
Yes, there’s a new regime in Edmonton, but as with Jesse Puljujarvi not trusting that any Oiler-run brain trust is going to be able to right the ship, what evidence — actual evidence — does McDavid or Draisaitl have that this team has materially improved in the summer? The big free-agent add was Mike Smith (37-and-a-half years old with an .898 save percentage last season) to serve as the 1b to Mikko Koskinen (31 years old with a .904 save percentage in just 59 career NHL appearances). They could improve because goaltending is so random, but the odds are against them.
Otherwise, the addition by subtraction of getting Milan Lucic off the books is great. And maybe James Neal can provide something of use instead, but even in his prime scoring years he wasn’t as big of a needle-mover as people think (largely because playing with Malkin is a great way to make your career). And even if you have an extremely high opinion of Evan Bouchard, Kailer Yamamoto, or Tyler Benson — all solid prospects — the idea that they plus Smith plus Neal plus (another) coaching change were all that was keeping the Oilers out of the playoffs is laughable.
This is a team that finished last season with 79 points — one below an Anaheim team everyone agreed stunk out loud, and two back of Vancouver. The latter of those teams improved notably this summer. Perhaps not notably enough to vault themselves into the playoffs — they missed the cut by nine whole points, after all, meaning Edmonton missed by 11 — but still, even if things improve, it’s another season well below the post-season cut line.
Few thought things would be so badly managed that McDavid missed the post-season 80 per cent of the time in his first five years in the league, but that now appears to be the most likely outcome. He and Draisaitl stood on their heads last season, combining for 91 goals. The rest of the team combined had 138. If you add Nugent-Hopkins to the mix, the number shifts to 119 for the talented forwards, and 110 for all 28 other players who dressed at least five times for the Oilers.
Unless Neal turns back into his old “guaranteed to score you 25-plus goals” self — which, hey, that worked for Alex Chiasson last year when he netted 22 — you would also have to say, “Oh right, because he gets to play with McDavid.” Chiasson’s 22 shattered his career high, but McDavid and Draisaitl had at least one of the assists on 12 of them. You might be able to get the same thing out of Neal, or something similar, but that doesn’t make up an 11-point gap in the standings.
None of this is to say the team hasn’t improved this summer, but it’s improved less than other teams in its own division, in which it just finished sixth of seven, let alone the rest of the Western Conference. Not much help is on the way for the big guns. Maybe even none at all.
Who, then, can blame McDavid and Draisaitl for coming across a bit dead-eyed at a pre-camp workout event attended by no one but Toronto media shiv artists looking to catch them saying something that’s simultaneously enthusiastic but not so enthusiastic you’d mistake it for actual enthusiasm? Especially while McDavid is still recovering from a PCL tear suffered in April and may not be ready for the start of camp.
They’re looking down the barrel of what will, in all likelihood, be yet another disappointing playoff-free season, under those conditions, and you’re supposed to love your job? Can’t imagine how grim that would feel.
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