Connor McDavid’s problems, both in hindsight and at the time, looked awfully silly. He’d failed to record a point in Edmonton’s first two games – both losses – and had yet to find a rhythm with Taylor Hall after spending most of the pre-season on his line. Still, both Jack Eichel and Max Domi had scored in their first NHL games, and neither faced the pressure that McDavid did as the consensus best prospect since Sidney Crosby.
Nail Yakupov could tell McDavid a thing or two about problems.
Coming off back-to-back sub-35 point, sub-minus-30 campaigns, Yakupov’s reputation entering the season was in a state of free fall. His defensive play was famously erratic; his offensive play was fairly close to non-existent. Even taking into account a surge late in 2014-15, Yakupov was a player badly in need of some positive results.
With few other options, thanks to a weak roster and injury trouble early, Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan put the two together, placing them on the same line at even-strength and a short time later reconfiguring the power play so they were on the same unit. The results since have been everything he could have hoped for.
In the six games since the two have become dedicated linemates, McDavid has five goals and eight points while Yakupov has two goals and seven points, ranking them No. 1 and No. 2 respectively on the Oilers’ scoring lists. Benoit Pouliot, the third member of the line, has a goal and three assists over the same period.
Looking at the three players, it’s easy to imagine why they might work well together. Not only are all three blessed with speed in abundance, but their skill sets fit the old archetype of having a playmaker, a shooter and a grinder together.
McDavid is clearly in the feature role, not splitting puck carrying duties the way he did when he was paired with Hall; the line revolves around his ability to bring the puck precisely where it needs to be, either by skating it there or by passing it to the open man. Yakupov is a triggerman, an energetic forward whose game is still raw even with 200 NHL contests under his belt, but he’s good at finding a place around the net and letting a shot go. Pouliot plays a power game and adds some needed experience.
McDavid, though, is the guy with all the goals early on. A lot of that is because he’s capable of doing it all himself. It was Yakupov who found him with a simple pass as he powered through the neutral zone against Calgary; he took care of the rest. It was Pouliot who found him streaking to the net against Detroit; again, McDavid’s wonderful combination of speed and wickedly soft hands took care of the rest.
There’s no denying that the trio had had its share of good fortune, too. McDavid’s 35.7 shooting percentage is an unreal figure which likely won’t remotely resemble his end-of-year total. He scored a fluky goal against Washington on Friday, when his pass to an open Yakupov hit Matt Niskanen’s stick en route and found its way past a flat-footed Philipp Grubauer. That represents 20 per cent of his goal-scoring on the year; it’s early days yet.
Even so, there’s no reason this unit can’t keep working.
The underlying numbers certainly look decent. It’s possible to argue about what a statistic like Corsi captures and doesn’t capture, but there’s no question that teams which routinely out-shoot their opponents tend to perform better.
With Yakupov and McDavid together, the Oilers average about eight more shot attempts than their opposition over the span of an hour. For the sake of contrast, last season it was the opposition averaging eight extra shot attempts per hour when Yakupov was on the ice; he had some of the worst on-ice numbers on one of the worst teams in the entire NHL.
McLellan has done his share, too. He’s used other lines for the majority of defensive zone draws, allowing the unit to avoid the toughest defensive zone assignments. He has also kept the line mostly away from the top opponents. With the advantage of home ice and last line change the last two games, McLellan has managed to arrange it so that McDavid’s most common forward opponents have been Marcus Johansson and Luke Glendening, respectively.
It’s a sensible approach. However talented McDavid is, he’s still a first-year player and allowing him a transition period makes all the sense in the world. For his part, Yakupov turned a corner late last season not just when he was paired with veteran centre Derek Roy, but also when that line was carefully deployed against low-end opponents. Yakupov may or may not grow past that assignment, but for now it gives him his best shot at success.
It works for the team, too. Edmonton has the luxury of deploying Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in a top line role, asking those older No. 1 picks to handle the toughest minutes. For example, Hall played nearly 10 minutes of head-to-head time at five-on-five against Alex Ovechkin on Friday night. He turns 24 in a few weeks and is ready for those assignments; once Jordan Eberle returns from injury the Oilers will be able to run their best three forwards from the past few seasons in a power-vs.-power role while simultaneously deploying two No. 1 picks in a softer minutes scoring role.
Edmonton, as befits a rebuilding team, will still have plenty of problems. But this arrangement helps put McDavid in a position to meet the ridiculous expectations he’s facing at a very young age, and helps Yakupov find success after two extraordinarily difficult campaigns. That has tremendous value to the Oilers as they attempt to improve their fortunes.