Connor McDavid, the Hart Trophy race, and ‘the Oilers model’

Kings’ Drew Doughty says it’s about time we show up against Edmonton, calls out past Oilers’ forwards for not playing defence, and is still pissed about getting beat one-on-one by Connor McDavid.

As we enter the final lap of the 2016-17 regular season, one of the subplots to monitor is the closing arguments for players who are legitimately in consideration for the various individual awards.

Of particular intrigue is the jockeying in the Hart Trophy race. After looking like it’d be a two-horse race in the early stages of the campaign, it’s been steadily picking up in fervour, intensity, and depth as a few other standouts have managed to ramp up their performance and add their names to the conversation.

Throwing a monkey wrench into things is the fact that there still isn’t really a universally agreed upon definition for what the award represents. By the letter of the law it’s to be given to the ‘most valuable player’ but that leaves it open to interpretation and can be difficult to distinguish from ‘most outstanding player’.

Those two things are incredibly tough to separate from one another because of the team nature of the sport, where such a large part of the equation are contextual factors like quality of teammates, competition, and usage. The first of those may be the most consequential in this discussion. Ironically, for an award that’s technically meant to recognize a player for individual greatness, there still typically needs to be a certain elevated baseline of performance around him for it to come together.

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Let’s unpack these things one at a time. From the perspective of value being added to the team, we should theoretically be looking at how each player’s team does with him on the ice versus when he’s on the bench to try and nail down just how individually responsible they are for their team’s success.

Here are those splits for the players atop the scoring leaderboard and generally considered to be firmly entrenched in this Hart conversation (all data during the course of 5-on-5 play, and pulled from the always great Corsica):

Combination Shots For % Chances For % Goals For %
TBL with vs. without Nikita Kucherov +3.98 +9.82 +17.89
SJS with vs. without Brent Burns +3.37 +0.04 +13.63
EDM with vs. without Connor McDavid +4.86 +15.4 +12.28
BOS with vs. without Brad Marchand +7.72 +5.95 +9.76
OTT with vs. without Erik Karlsson +2.55 +0.33 +4.48
PIT with vs. without Sidney Crosby +4.24 +5.72 +3.34
CHI with vs. without Patrick Kane +0.4 -5.99 +0.38
WSH with vs. without Nick Backstrom -0.75 -2.67 -1.28

While it’d be ludicrous to suggest the Capitals are actually better off when Nicklas Backstrom is not on the ice based on this data, the more important takeaway is the Capitals are a remarkably deep and versatile team that doesn’t rely on him to prop everything else up. While that likely hurts his case, I’m sure that kind of luxury is a trade-off the Capitals and their fans will gladly take.

There’s certainly a much bigger gap in the on-ice versus off-ice splits for Brad Marchand and Sidney Crosby than there is for Backstrom, but it’s also worth noting that both the Bruins and Penguins are still managing to keep their heads above water without their stars on the ice. With that said, the importance of their unique abilities to help everyone around them make that leap from good to great can’t be overstated.

Nikita Kucherov likely won’t get the love he deserves in the voting process because he’s a Tampa Bay Lightning player not named Steven Stamkos, which is a travesty because he’s putting the finishing touches on a truly spectacular season. It’s a testament to his brilliance that even without Stamkos (widely considered to be the most lethal trigger man around), the Lightning have maintained one of the league’s most productive power plays.

Kucherov is now on an 82-game pace of 46 goals and 96 points, with only Crosby averaging more points per game this year. That’s largely due to Kucherov’s torrid performance of late, with an eye-popping 17 goals and 31 points in the past 17 games. Regardless of whether or not his team ultimately qualifies for the post-season, he’s cemented himself as a bonafide superstar.

As good as all of those guys have been, it’s pretty tough to make a case that any are more qualified for the Hart Trophy than Connor McDavid, whose performance has checked all the boxes.

Aesthetically speaking, there’s no more singularly electrifying talent than McDavid right now. What he’s able to do on the ice is unparalleled. There are players who could arguably match him in straight-line speed from Point A to Point B, such as Michael Grabner or Carl Hagelin, but they don’t have nearly the finishing ability that McDavid has. Someone like Andreas Athanasiou has both blazing speed and knows what to do with the puck when he gets there, but he doesn’t have the fast-twitch stop and start in small spaces to his game that McDavid does.

A great example of this came the other night, where he effortlessly went 0 to 100 by planting his foot and making quick work of reigning Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty:

 

In Doughty’s defence, he’s just the latest on a growing list of players who’ve been victimized by McDavid’s speed. He’s used that ostensibly impossible-to-defend combination of skills to vault himself into some illustrious company this season.

Even before adjusting for his age, McDavid is currently having one of the most productive five-on-five scoring seasons of any player in the league over the past decade. Assuming he’s able to finish strong, he’ll very likely join an elite handful of the best players to play the game during that time in the 60-plus point five-on-five club:

Player Season 5-on-5 Points
Henrik Sedin 20092010 77
Evgeni Malkin 20112012 66
Sidney Crosby 20092010 66
Alex Ovechkin 20092010 64
Steven Stamkos 20112012 63
Alex Ovechkin 20072008 61
Corey Perry 20132014 59
Daniel Sedin 20092010 59
Nicklas Backstrom 20092010 59
Ryan Getzlaf 20132014 59
CONNOR MCDAVID 20162017 58
Daniel Sedin 20102011 58
Evgeni Malkin 20072008 58
Jarome Iginla 20072008 58
Joe Thornton 20072008 58
Marian Gaborik 20092010 57
Patrick Kane 20152016 57
Evgeni Malkin 20082009 55

In hockey, it’s exceedingly tough for a single player to make the type of tangible impact that an NFL quarterback can, or an NBA superstar who constantly has the ball in his hands. But every once in a blue moon, a generational player comes along who proves to be the exception to that rule.

An amusing byproduct to unintentionally come from Edmonton’s success this season has been some of the curious historical revisionism with regards to how the Oilers managed to turn their fortunes around and get out of the cellar. While GM Peter Chiarelli deserves credit for opportunistically stealing Cam Talbot from the Rangers, and there’s finally some semblance of sanity on the team’s blue line, at the end of the day none of it really matters without McDavid’s individual greatness.

For as improved as his supporting cast has supposedly been, it’s worth remembering that McDavid has factored into a league-high 40 per cent of his team’s total goals this season. That’s because everything they do as a team runs through McDavid, which puts into question who and what’s actually responsible for their turnaround, and how the praise for it should really be divvied out. Just keep in mind that with McDavid on the ice the Oilers are a dominant team, controlling the same rate of goals scored as the Washington Capitals do. When McDavid leaves the ice, they completely crater, far more closely resembling the Oilers teams of the past decade than anyone would seemingly like to admit.

Player Points Total Team Goals % Offensive Contribution
Connor McDavid 89 222 40.01
Nikita Kucherov 80 206 38.83
Brad Marchand 81 216 37.50
Patrick Kane 82 225 36.44
Erik Karlsson 68 189 35.98
Brent Burns 73 206 35.44
Henrik Zetterberg 62 176 35.23
Tyler Seguin 71 207 34.30
Jeff Carter 61 178 34.27
Mark Scheifele 76 223 34.08
Nicklas Backstrom 82 241 34.02
Ryan Getzlaf 66 196 33.67
Vlad Tarasenko 68 210 32.38
Jamie Benn 67 207 32.37
Sidney Crosby 82 256 32.03

Something to keep in mind the next time someone tries to convince you that Chiarelli and the Oilers have stumbled upon some sort of magical team-building formula, or that bottoming out in the pursuit of high draft picks actually isn’t worth it.