EDMONTON — Connor McDavid lay there behind the dislodged Calgary net, clutching his leg while looking up at Flames goalie Mike Smith and defenceman Mark Giordano. “It’s broken,” he appeared to say.
Was he talking about his leg? The Oilers franchise as a whole?
Or perhaps it referred to his will to play out the remaining seven years of his contract with an Oilers team that can’t seem to get things right, despite having two of the Top 4 scorers in the National Hockey League with McDavid and 50-goal-man Leon Draisaitl.
“I thought my leg was in two pieces,” McDavid admitted a bit sheepishly on Sunday. “I’ve never had a lower-body injury before. This was something new for me.”
McDavid walked into a media scrum Sunday morning without even the aid of crutches, quite relieved that X-rays had been negative, but still wary of what may come from an MRI scheduled for later in the day.
Then the 21-year-old showed a welcome side of his personality that is beginning to emerge in his fourth NHL season, as McDavid grows comfortable in his skin as hockey’s best player. Asked about what he would say in an exit interview with acting GM Keith Gretzky and CEO Bob Nicholson, McDavid was short and to the point:
“My message is, let’s get this right. Let’s fix this,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what has to happen, let’s just get this right. That’s all.”
On too many nights, the media is left to ask the Oilers captain about why another game was lost, when simply comparing Edmonton’s poorly built roster to that night’s opponent provides the obvious answer. Meanwhile, the old GM, Peter Chiarelli, avoided the media at all costs, while owner Daryl Katz has not spoken through media to local hockey fans in years.
At age 21 and embarking on yet another off-season as the face of a failing franchise, McDavid is more ready to talk than ever before. He knows the issue here is depth, plain and simple.
“It’s the middle of the pack — the guys who have 10, 12, 15 goals. I’m not putting this on other people, I’m just saying that’s the facts: If you want to be successful, your whole lineup has to be dangerous.”
The oldest cliché in hockey is your best players have to be your best players in order to win. This season, the Oilers got career years out of McDavid, Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Darnell Nurse — throw in Alex Chiasson and Zack Kassian — and still they are closer to 31st place in the NHL than they are to being 14th in the NHL.
“Look at the teams that have been successful, you need depth,” said Chiasson, a UFA who made it clear he would like to return to Edmonton. “You can’t rely on the same guys every night to get the job done. It doesn’t matter how good your top players are, on the nights when games are close, or your top players might not be feeling 100 per cent, you need those (depth) guys to carry part of the load.
“This team needs more of that.”
“We have a lot of stuff that we need to figure out,” added McDavid. “I want to play in the playoffs. That’s the bottom line.”
McDavid harboured no ill will towards Giordano, and when asked if he could possibly take that net-front collision scenario out of his game, he grinned.
“They pay me $100 million to play my game, and part of my game is beating guys wide and going to the net. I’ll have to give my money back if I stop doing that. I’m not doing that, so…”
Amazingly, the vast majority of the Oilers players who spoke as they cleaned out their lockers Sunday put the blame on the current roster. Draisaitl stood out in that regard, despite how painfully obvious it is that management has failed to surround him and McDavid with enough talent to get anything done here.
Nicholson said upon firing Chiarelli that “there’s something in the water in Edmonton.” The hard truth is, the only bad water here flows from the taps in the Executive bathroom at the Oilers Entertainment Group.
McDavid made his frustration clear last week, on the night that Edmonton was officially eliminated from the playoffs by Vegas, and we can report that those words shook the Oilers front office like a small earthquake. He stepped up again on Sunday, in his own, understated way, and made it clear that his expectations are a hell of a lot higher than blaming the plumbing for this interminable rebuild in Edmonton.
“I’d be a complete loser if I wasn’t frustrated,” he said. “It’s frustrating personally; it’s frustrating as a group. We want to be in the playoffs. That’s not where we’re at. We’ve got some stuff to figure out.
“That’s not rubbing anyone’s nose in it. That’s simply the facts. I know Bob (CEO Nicholson) is on a mission to right the ship here, and I’m confident he will.”
And I’m confident that he’d better.