Oilers’ Connor McDavid still has improvements to make defensively

Matt Murray had 38 saves on 39 shots to help the Penguins beat the Oilers 3-1.

PITTSBURGH — The coach — or in the Edmonton Oilers case, coaches — always talks about the difficulty of outscoring their defensive mistakes. On the flip side, who better than Connor McDavid to test that theory?

But on a night when Edmonton lost in Pittsburgh, a tight game with a late empty netter, it was McDavid’s minus-2 that stood out more than the one assist he managed in a 3-1 loss.

McDavid and the first power-play unit were delinquent in allowing Bryan Rust to walk out from behind the goal and score a short-handed goal to tie the game at 1-1, and then McDavid allowed Teddy Blueger to walk right past him in the defensive zone on the 2-1 goal. Blueger was wide open in the slot to rifle home a pass for the goal, and despite a myriad of Oilers chances, that one stands as the winner.

“Kind of an awkward play,” said McDavid, who was at the end of a long shift. “He was coming in on a change and he was the high guy and he drove right to the net. I’m not actually sure whose guy he was. Maybe mine.”

On the short-handed goal, Leon Draisaitl admitted, “We have to be a little bit more aware in that situation. We played it a little too loose. But we had more than enough chances to tie it up later.”

“We can’t give that up,” added McDavid, now winless in six games against Sidney Crosby. “We had a chance to maybe go up two. Not good.”

Look: McDavid (nor Draisaitl) is nowhere near the problem in Edmonton. He is by far their brightest light, obviously, and if he’s not the best player in the world today he’s second behind the guy wearing No. 87 for Pittsburgh Wednesday. You simply can’t say enough about him as a player. He is the furthest thing from the issue when it comes to this mess in Edmonton.

But great players play at both ends of the rink, and at 22-years-old, McDavid’s game is not yet complete. This was the rare night when two lax defensive efforts both ended up in his net, and McDavid — despite a penalty shot and some fine offensive efforts — was not able to erase the deficit against a stellar Matt Murray in the Pittsburgh net.

“Maybe I left them out too long on the 2-1 goal,” offered head coach Ken Hitchcock. “Tired on the shift and that’s on me. We had a bunch of chances to tie it and I have to find a way to bear down on a couple.”

It also wouldn’t hurt if one of the other lines chipped in, the way a couple of depth guys scored for the Penguins. But that’s how it is for Edmonton’s two young stars — they’re on an island here, and whomever the new GM is, his first priority is to find them some help on the wing.

Meanwhile, Crosby had an assist on a plus-1 night. If or when McDavid gets to Crosby’s level of defensive awareness, we can bury the debate about who is the best player in the NHL.

Hitchcock was a Team Canada assistant coach at the Vancouver Olympics, where Crosby scored the golden goal.

“When we were at practice, there were times when we’d say to ourselves, ‘What the hell is he doing? Where is he going?’” Hitchcock recalled. “Well, he was practicing plays that weren’t connected to the drill we were doing. And then you’d see it pop up in a game.

“The bigger the game, the more he was a factor. As the games got bigger he just got to a higher level that no one else could obtain.”

McDavid was a teenager when he watched that game, and it wasn’t the last time he marvelled at something Crosby did. There aren’t a lot of guys in hockey that a player with McDavid’s skill set will watch in search of grabbing a tip or two.

Of course, Crosby is one.

“How strong he is down low,” McDavid said. “As the low centreman, playing against him, he’s so strong on his skates. So stocky. He’s tough to knock off the puck, which is a great quality to have.”

If there’s one place where McDavid’s game will still mature, it’s that strong play down low in both zones. Crosby is tough to knock off the puck when he has it, and doesn’t let you get to his net when he doesn’t.

“I think I’m pretty strong on my skates, but probably not to that level,” McDavid said. “Ultimately I’ll never be as stocky or as wide as him, but it’s definitely stuff you can work on.”

It’s that stern defensive game that the league’s best players eventually find, and if an annual Art Ross candidate can become tough to play against defensively, then you have the complete superstar.

“Sid thinks at a level, when the other team has the puck, that’s above everyone else in the league,” Hitchcock said. “His anticipation when the other team has the puck is so high, he knows where it’s going ahead of time. He can pick off passes, make you make errors… And then he also knows where people are located on the ice, so he can turn that turnover into a scoring chance.

“Connor has that in him. He sniffs out danger offensively. Sid thinks it defensively — he has both going.

“That’s where Connor is going to get to.”

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