The loss of a player like Connor McDavid would be a heavy blow to any hockey team. The 18-year-old rookie centre had established himself as the Edmonton Oilers’ second line centre in just a baker’s dozen worth of games. He was scoring effectively, he was thrilling fans with breathtaking speed and creativity, and he was breathing life into Nail Yakupov, the 2012 first overall pick whose effort has always been far more obvious than his effectiveness.
And then he was gone, suffering a fractured clavicle on an innocent play with an awful conclusion. The Oilers, who the season prior had been described by then-coach Dallas Eakins as having just two NHL centres, were suddenly in an eerily similar position. It appeared as though underrated Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and limited fourth-line veteran Mark Letestu were the only bona fide NHLers down the middle of the team’s roster.
The difference between this year’s situation and last year’s turns out to be a player who was on the radar both times. In 2014-15, Leon Draisaitl was a promising centre who wasn’t ready for the expectations thrust upon him. In 2015-16, he looks like an entirely different player.
Draisaitl was sent to the AHL out of training camp, a victim of either a less-than-stellar pre-season or a salary cap necessity, depending on who you listen to. He was recalled and played his first game on October 29, slotting in at right wing on a red-hot line with Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall. He immediately produced in the role and for the span of five days and three games the Oilers had a vision of life with two spectacular offensive lines:
The key number here is the Corsi percentage. Corsi has always been a controversial statistic, but it does show which team is controlling the flow of play and, all else being equal, predicts which team will score more goals. The “all else being equal” part is the bit that folks tend to argue, but we aren’t talking about fourth-line grinders here; we’re looking at a group with four No. 1 overall picks. The smart money is on this set of six out-scoring average NHL competition if the shot metrics are equal, and for the three games the Oilers used these lines, those shot metrics were anything but equal.
Edmonton won two of those three games, shocking the then-league-leading Canadiens and hanging on to victory against the Flyers after McDavid went down with injury. They were heading to overtime in the other game against provincial rival Calgary when goaltender Cam Talbot let in a horrific goal with nine seconds remaining:
Jordan Eberle returned from injury the game after McDavid went down, but he was at far less than 100 per cent effectiveness. A flu bug ran through the team, taking both Nugent-Hopkins and Benoit Pouliot out of the lineup for games and limiting many players who continued to dress.
With a long road trip, the flu bug, poor goaltending and a misfiring bottom-six a part of the problem, Edmonton dropped four of six contests after losing McDavid and fell from 25th in the league to 30th.
It’s easy to focus entirely on the standings, but there were positive signs here. There was the overtime win in Anaheim over a big Ducks team the Oilers rarely match, a game against L.A. sans Nugent-Hopkins that wasn’t decided until the 18:23 mark of the third period, or Wednesday night’s game against Chicago which Edmonton dominated in possession and came within a glorious Corey Crawford glove save of overtime victory.
In all this you may have missed Draisaitl sliding over from right wing back to his natural centre position, filling the massive hole in the roster blown open by McDavid’s injury. Draisaitl was brilliant (seven points in three games) on a line with Hall and Nugent-Hopkins, but now he’s getting the job done (seven points in six games) on a line with Hall and a resurgent Teddy Purcell, whose play has improved markedly of late.
The performance of all three players post-McDavid is worth looking at in detail:
The lines have been in a state of flux has head coach Todd McLellan has tried different combinations, but the one that was working (which he now seems to have settled on) was this trio. Purcell’s emergence is a story in its own right, but he’s been an effective top-six forward in the NHL before so it’s not quite a bolt from the blue.
What’s shocking is how much better Draisaitl has looked. He’s had some shooting percentage help, with three goals on nine shots in that span. That kind of efficiency won’t continue, but it does help make up for his lousy 4.1 shooting percentage as a snake-bit rookie a year ago. The real key is that he’s been able to play the toughest available minutes and his line has continued to tilt the ice in the Oilers’ favour.
It’s been a boon to McLellan and gives the coach an opportunity. Last year, when Hall went down for a long stretch of time, then-coach Todd Nelson put together a top line of Pouliot, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle. The trio worked out extremely well, so McLellan has reunited them in the hopes they can recapture some of their magic. That line scored two goals Wednesday, mostly while being hard-matched against Chicago’s Patrick Kane.
Edmonton still faces real problems. On Wednesday it dressed four defencemen against Chicago who had combined for a total of just 144 career NHL games. The goaltending is only intermittently competent. The bottom-six continues to be a work-in-progress. There’s a reason the Oilers had only climbed to 25th in the league with the addition of McDavid.
But the Oilers’ top-six is going to give them a chance to win games. It’s allowed them to be competitive against Chicago and L.A., even with the flu tearing through the roster.
Much of the credit for that must go to Draisaitl, who is proving himself a capable top-two centre, giving Edmonton the kind of depth at that position it used to only be able to dream about.