EDMONTON — “We probably should shorten it up, yeah.”
Connor McDavid does not lead the league with an average shift length of one minute and three seconds by mistake. He likes to hang out there, and with his speed, if he can coast a bit while his opponents are working hard in the first 40 seconds of a shift, and kill them in the final 20 seconds.
Overtime, however, has become a little bit of a problem for McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, likely the National Hockey League’s deadliest duo when it comes to three-on-three hockey. Losers of three straight in overtime — with McDavid and Draisaitl on the ice as the latter two games were lost — it seems the league is beginning to figure out how to combat the Edmonton Oilers in overtime.
“When it first started it was two-on-one, two-on-one, breakaway. It was exciting,” McDavid said Monday.
“Now, it’s a little bit slower. A little bit more of a possession game. Coaches, once they see something enough times they figure out how to coach it. They’ve done a good job of learning to defend it, and maybe slowing it down a little bit.”
There was a game in Arizona against the Coyotes won by Edmonton in a shootout last month where Draisaitl played 4:10 of the five minute overtime period. In a 3-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday, the pair started the period with Oscar Klefbom on the points, and all three played until the Sabres scored at 1:13.
Meanwhile, Jack Eichel played the entire 1:13 for Buffalo, but both the goal scorer Colin Miller and Marcus Johansson had replaced Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen before the 1:00 mark of OT. They were fresh while the Edmonton players were all a minute into their shifts.
Did the three Oilers stay out too long?
“Not last night they didn’t,” said Oilers head coach Dave Tippett. “There was hardly energy used, just a lot of floating around. Then we turned it over and just didn’t pick up the guys coming back.”
Tippett has, to some extent, created this monster by condoning a top powerplay unit that almost always sees 90 seconds of any minor penalty, and sometimes the entire two minutes. The Edmonton powerplay leads the league in efficiency, however, so you can’t second guess Tippett there.
“The pace of play dictates” how long they should stay out in overtime, said Tippett. But what we’re seeing is opponents defending their own zone while letting McDavid and Draisaitl skate around on the perimeter, then changing and attacking when the Oilers are no longer fresh.
That wasn’t really the case against Buffalo, McDavid said.
“It’s not really wearing (us) down, when you’re not even really skating. The first minute of that overtime was just … No one really did a thing. That’s not hard,” he said.
That is fair. But the results suggest that what the Oilers are doing is finding only moderate success.
In eight overtime games this season, Edmonton has won two, lost three and taken three into a shootout.
According to NHL Stats, Alex Ovechkin leads the NHL in average powerplay shift length at 77.9 seconds. Draisaitl is fourth at 72.4, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins fifth (71.9) and McDavid sixth (71.4).
In overtime, Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Erik Gustafsson tops out with an average OT shift of 85 seconds, followed by McDavid at 78.5. Draisaitl ranks fifth at 72.2.
When it comes to average shift length in all situations combined, McDavid (63 seconds) and Draisaitl (61 seconds) average the longest shifts of any NHL player heading into action Monday night. They are also one-two among all NHL forwards in total time on ice this season.
In the short window of overtime, however, like McDavid said, we’ve seen teams absolutely refuse to let them get into a battle of odd-man rushes. That is, of course, because your odds of beating No. 97 and No. 29 in that kind of hockey are poor at best.
“I think players adjusted, and coaches adjusted a little bit,” Draisaitl said. “I think you can avoid the odd three-on-two or two-on-one now. It’s become a lot less (wide open), that’s for sure.”
Really, it has become a microcosm of the long game that Tippett has been trying to teach these impatient Oilers all season long.
During the game, the Oilers have to learn to grind out wins, and patiently wait for their chance. In OT it becomes more focused on McDavid and Draisaitl. They have to learn to be patient, and not to turn the puck over — the way Draisaitl did twice versus Buffalo — awaiting their chance without taking high-risk gambles.
“The one thing that is key is puck possession,” Tippett said. “To give up the puck (in OT) is a mortal sin. An outside shot is a giveaway.
“The games that are really entertaining for all of us? When it’s going back and forth, two-on-one, two-on-one, two-on-one …? We’re good at those,” he said. “We’re not so good at the slow ones, where (teams) just slow-walk it around.”
The coach can work on that aspect of overtime, likely by spreading the workload around to a few other players.
But there are other aspects he simply can’t control from behind the Oilers bench.
“We had the puck on our stick and gave it away,” said Tippett. “So that’s on us and not on them.”