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After eye-opening play without McDavid, Draisaitl is in Hart Trophy race

We’re not too far removed from the collective sigh in Edmonton when Connor McDavid didn’t win the Hart Trophy — chiefly due to the Oilers missing the playoffs a couple of seasons ago.

But now that they’ve been in the picture all season long and appear to be solidly in the thick of the playoff picture with just over a month left in the season, an injury and a standout performance are likely going to keep him out of the picture this year as well.

Who would have guessed that the name getting the most buzz at the moment would be on McDavid’s own team — and our Spotlight Performer of the week.

Spotlight Performance

Whether he’s playing at centre or on the wing, I’ve been pretty bullish about Leon Draisaitl being significantly better than some of his detractors who dock him severely for playing with McDavid for a long while now. One of his greatest strengths as a player is his ability to move the puck up the ice with control, where he is equalled by very few of his peers.

However, strength in transition is rarely what gets attention from Hart Trophy voters — they’re usually much more interested in his league-leading 99 points, 11 more than any other player in the league.

Usually a player like Draisaitl — who rides shotgun with the consensus best player in the world for a large chunk of his ice time — gets run down the rankings a little bit, but McDavid missing two weeks in February only to see Draisaitl carry the Oilers in his absence has opened some eyes.

In the six games McDavid missed, Draisaitl put up a 12 points facing top competition — one fewer than Mika Zibanejad for the league lead over that time, even though Zibanejad played two extra games.

Playing over 25 minutes per night while McDavid was out and nearly 23 minutes per night all season long, Draisaitl has been a force to be reckoned with. Contrary to the expectation that playing so much would slow him down, Draisaitl has actually been stepping it up of late.

Just to drive home how incredible McDavid is, through the first three months of the season the gap between how much offence he was creating directly and how much Draisaitl was creating was equal to or greater than the gap between Draisaitl and a league-average forward.

Since the calendar turned to 2020 though, Draisaitl has been skyrocketing up the rankings and he has actually created more offence per minute played than McDavid has — which is pretty stunning, especially with the weight of expectations put on him, and the excessive ice time.

Whether Draisaitl can maintain that level of performance for the rest of the season and playoffs is questionable. But if he does, it would go a long way towards making the Oilers competitive, and it’s important to note that he’s doing this without the benefit of playing with McDavid — this is even strength only.

I’m not sure Draisaitl’s raw point production and phenomenal second half of the season are enough to win him the Hart over players who have had to carry their teams’ offences all year long like Nathan MacKinnon or Artemi Panarin, but it’s easy to see why he should be in the conversation.

The Question

If you’re tired of hearing about emergency backup goaltenders, well… Too bad. This week Steve Dangle and I were thinking along the same lines. I don’t know if you know this, but he was affected by that loss in a very visceral way. Steve asks:

“How much pressure did the Maple Leafs actually manage to put on David Ayres in that game? How badly did the Hurricanes shut them down?”

To put it mildly, the Carolina Hurricanes gutted the Toronto Maple Leafs’ attack.

That isn’t to say that Ayres didn’t face his fair share of good quality shots. Of the 11 he faced (the NHL only credits 10), six of them were from the slot, including two of his first three.

The problem wasn’t really that the Leafs were settling for poor quality shots, they just weren’t shooting. Adjusting Ayres’ play to 60 minutes in all situations, take a look at how the Leafs generated shots compared to their season average.

After Pierre Engvall pounced on a rebound from Tyson Barrie’s point shot to score the Leafs’ third goal of the game, the Hurricanes didn’t allow the Leafs to get a single shot on net from the inner slot from that point forward. Compared to the Leafs’ normal pace for putting shots on net from the inner slot, the Hurricanes were able to cut them down at the net front by over 70 per cent.

Slot shots overall were less drastic — just under an 18 per cent drop from their average — and completed slot passes only dropped by about 10 per cent, but shot attempts from the perimeter dropped by over 40 per cent.

For whatever reason, the Maple Leafs were working hard for perfect, high quality shots, and the Hurricanes ate them alive in preventing those from happening.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but putting shots on net from anywhere on an untested, non-NHL goaltender might have been the better strategy to create some chaos and take advantage of a player who was unpracticed at tracking the puck through some bounces at NHL-speed.

Quick Hits

• The Chicago Blackhawks have been the worst defensive team in the league for two seasons in a row at least, and a big part of that is on their top players. Among all NHL players who have played 500 or more minutes this season, the ones who have been on the ice for the most slot passes against are Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Tough for your goalies to make a stop when they’re constantly moving around.

• The line that’s been on the ice for the most inner-slot shots against this season is the Winnipeg Jets’ top line, they’re the only trio in the league giving up more than nine inner slot shots every 60 minutes at 5-vs-5.

• The worst inner-slot shot differential belongs to neither of the aforementioned groups, though. That dishonour falls to Luke Glendening, whose Detroit Red Wings teammates see only 31.7 per cent of the inner slot shots go in their favour when he’s on the ice.

• At the other end of the spectrum is a little hope for the Minnesota Wild, who have a line of Jordan Greenway with Marcus Foligno and Joel Eriksson Ek controlling 65 per cent of all inner slot shots while they’re on the ice.

• That Wild line narrowly beats out the Montreal Canadiens’ top line of Phillip Danault between Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar, who control 63.5 per cent. Two unlikely trios of non-playoff teams that have been incredible this season.

• Turnovers aren’t something you should ever look at in raw numbers. Defencemen with the most turnovers this season: Thomas Chabot, Brent Burns, Roman Josi, Shea Theodore, Miro Heiskanen, and Ben Chiarot. Defencemen with the least: Roman Polak, Dennis Cholowski, Brent Seabrook, Trevor Daley, Yannick Weber, and Markus Nutivaara. Who would you rather have in your group of six?