Friday Four: Is it still possible for Connor McDavid to level up as a player?

Justin Bourne and Carly Agro talk hockey and discuss why John Tavares has made a minimal impact with the Maple Leafs, and if the Oilers need Connor McDavid to be more physical on the ice.

The Friday Four, a collection of thoughts and information on some intriguing player performances, continues this week with notes on:

• The rookie goalie who would stand up to Brad Marchand’s nonsense.

• The evolving greatness of Connor McDavid.

• Underrated David Perron an important cog of the Blues.

Connor Ingram‘s fantastic game and inspirational path to that start.

Pyotr Kochetkov, Carolina Hurricanes

Who the heck is the rookie goalie who stood up to Brad Marchand’s nonsense and snuffed out whatever intimidation tactic this was?

First of all, he’s a second-round pick from 2019, so not a player who has descended from the heavens out of nowhere. He was named the best goalie at the 2020 World Juniors in a bronze-medal effort, where he had a .953 save percentage and 1.45 goals-against average. Bouncing between Russia’s KHL, VHL and MHL (top pro league, secondary pro league and junior league), it’s been a while since Kochetkov has settled in with one team.

This year, Kochetkov was 10-10-2 with a .926 save percentage and 2.23 GAA in 23 games with the KHL’s Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod. That’s a top-10 save rate and respectable GAA playing behind what was a non-playoff team.

When the remainder of the KHL season was cancelled after the Olympics and the barbaric Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kochetkov was recalled by Carolina to join its AHL affiliate in Chicago. There, Kochetkov went 13-1-2 with a 2.09 GAA and .921 save percentage.

Sara Civian at The Athletic wrote about the legend of Kochetkov, which included another testy moment in the minors when he challenged an entire bench of players.

He wasn’t supposed to factor into the NHL team’s plans so quickly, though, but injuries to the top two guys opened the door for him to get three looks at the end of the regular season. In two starts, he allowed five goals on 48 shots (.895 save percentage) against the Rangers and Devils, and in the 27:03 he played against the Islanders in place of an injured Antti Raanta, Kochetkov turned aside seven of eight.

Wednesday’s Game 2 was his Stanley Cup Playoffs initiation and Kochetkov was more than up to the task, replacing Raanta early, playing 52 of the 60 minutes and turning aside 93.8 per cent of the shots he faced. Raanta has been a good backup for the Canes without any playoff experience – Kochetkov is the nice out-of-nowhere story who is at least giving visions of a future No. 1.

We’re a long way off from making that sort of declaration, and who knows, Frederik Andersen might still return in this series. But the 21-year-old Kochetkov stepped up big and showed he won’t be intimidated on the biggest stage.

“We have faith in the kid and we’ve seen him, so it’s not like we’re just throwing him in and don’t know what we have,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “And the guys responded with the way they played in front of him. But he responded by the way he played. There’s a lot of faith in that group with our goalie.” 

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

You probably know the stats by now.

In last year’s 56-game season, Connor McDavid finished with the best points per game mark (1.88) in the salary-cap era, and the best mark since Mario Lemieux averaged 2.30 points per game in 1995-96.

Since he entered the league in 2015-16, no one has more points than McDavid’s 697, more assists than his 458 and only Auston Matthews, Alex Ovechkin and Leon Draisaitl have more goals. This season, in a return to 82 games, McDavid’s 123 points challenged Nikita Kucherov’s cap-era best 128.

He’s a superstar and a video game character. We all know that.

It’s a little different in the playoffs. Sure, his 1.13 points per game in the post-season is still fifth-best in the cap era, but the Oilers have just one series win and that came in McDavid’s sophomore 2016-17 season. Edmonton hasn’t built on that yet.

You’ve heard the charges. McDavid needs to buy in to defence more. He should draw more penalties, and it’s wild the refs don’t see it. He needs to deal with the physical nature of the playoffs better … and on it goes. Fair or not, until a McDavid-led team breaks through in the playoffs, he’s going to hear about what else he needs to do.

But this might be the playoffs where McDavid levels up again … as crazy as that is to contemplate.

In the first two games against Los Angeles, McDavid had eight hits, four in each game. Last year, he had eight total hits in all four playoff games, and the year before that nine hits in four playoff games. It looks like something else might be changing in his game, perhaps more of a buy-in to overall “playoff hockey” style.

“I think it’s important,” Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft said after the Game 2 win. “I thought there was a physical investment to that game tonight. I also think it’s a function of how we have to come through the neutral zone versus their structure that, if we want to have success, you’re putting pucks in places where it invites physical contact. We did a good job of establishing ourselves on that forecheck.

“When you see your leaders getting physical, guys like Leon, Connor, Nuge finishing checks, I think it’s contagious and I think it pays off over the long haul.”

Now, it’s not that you really want Connor McDavid to have to be throwing checks all over like he’s a third-line energy player. The brunt of that job falls to the Zack Kassians or Josh Archibalds of the lineup. But this is a young Kings defence and putting pressure on them on the forecheck will test them and force mistakes. And the veteran defensive presence of Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault will make it harder to find ice in the neutral zone anyway.

The added physicality isn’t costing McDavid where he matters most to the Oilers either – he still has four points in the first two games.

McDavid isn’t reason 1, 2, 3, or anywhere on the list, of things to blame for why the Oilers haven’t met the potential a team has when it can ice two of the world’s top superstar players. The Oilers have had a team-building issue for his entire tenure.

But it is not unusual for a young offensive superstar to take a little time to appreciate and develop the full scope of well-rounded skills that make you a truly great playoff player.

McDavid is the best in the world right now, and has been for a couple years. He might still be getting better if he’s not finished adding elements to his game.

David Perron, St. Louis Blues

The Blues have one of the better and deeper forward units going. Having nine 20-goal scorers is outstanding, and that kind of firepower helped them to a 27 per cent power-play success rate that ranked second in the league during the regular season, and it’s continued at that pace early in the first two games of the playoffs.

When the Blues are talked about, the spotlight tends to be on Jordan Kyrou or Robert Thomas, the youngsters coming up fast who will be part of this for a while. Or maybe it’s Vladimir Tarasenko, a dangerous goal scorer who bounced back with a team-leading 34 goals this season. Or it’s Ryan O’Reilly, one of the best defensive centres in the game and the Conn Smythe winner of St. Louis’ 2019 Cup run.

But don’t underestimate or forget David Perron.

In that 2019 championship season, Perron finished third on the Blues in playoff points at even-strength and he was tied for the team lead with two game-winners, including one in the Stanley Cup Final. He led the team in shots for percentage at 5-on-5, and was one of the top four in expected goals percentage. When he was on the ice, St. Louis outscored the opposition 17-9 in those full strength situations.

So it was a big blow last year when Perron tested positive for COVID right before the Blues tangled with Vegas in their first-round playoff match. And though the series went the full seven games, Perron never suited up once. He was stuck quarantining at home in his basement.

“It was tough for sure to not play last year, but that was the situation,” Perron said after Game 1 of this year’s first-round series against Minnesota. “The worst part was not being part of the team, helping out however you could. I was literally going crazy. Couldn’t get out of the basement. The kids, I could hear them running around upstairs. Tough situation.”

Since that Cup win, Perron is second to O’Reilly in playoff points per game and tied with him for most post-season game-winners on the Blues. His 29 playoff points over the past four years are tied for 27th across the NHL and, remember, he missed an entire series. His 0.78 points per game rate in that span is still also top 40 in the league, competitive with Andrei Svechnikov, better than Steven Stamkos, Kyle Connor or Patrice Bergeron.

In his first playoff game back this season, Perron showed no rust. He started out with a hat trick and led his team to that decisive opening-game win.

“Felt pretty good all day as far as nerves,” Perron said after the 4-0 win. “I think it’s important early on, the older guys just trying to keep calm, weather the storm early on, and I think we did a good job of that, getting the first goal.”

Game 2 wasn’t so great for the Blues, as Minnesota answered with a 6-2 win to even the series. But there was Perron, on the ice for over 66 per cent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts, and 73 per cent of the expected goals. It didn’t break in his favour this time, but Perron has been one of St. Louis’ best so far. It’s time he got a little more attention for what he’s been doing for years and continues now at 33 years old.

Entering Game 3, Perron leads the Blues with four points, which ties him for third overall.

Connor Ingram, Nashville Predators

Even though he hasn’t won a playoff game yet, the Predators’ third-string goalie has been one of the best stories of the early-going.

A third-round pick of Nashville’s in 2016, Ingram has a WJC silver medal, in 2018-19 he led the AHL in shutouts with six in just 22 games and in 2019-20 he was named to the second All-Star team in that league. Last season, things changed.

In a 32 Thoughts column earlier this season, Elliotte Friedman wrote about Ingram’s decision to voluntarily enter the NHL-NHLPA Player Assistance Program in January 2021 (thoughts 23-27). The goalie was consumed by obsessive-compulsive disorder, but didn’t understand what the issue was at first. He was with the Predators as their taxi squad goalie at the time, missed the team bus one morning and showed up late. When he got there, he approached goalie coach Ben Vanderklok.

“(Ben) asked, ‘What’s going on?’ I told him, ‘I can’t do this.’ I didn’t want to play hockey. After listening to me, he said, ‘Let’s get you on a plane, there’s a program for this, something in place to help.’” Friedman wrote. Ingram spent 40 days in the program.

This season he returned to the AHL with a 30-17-7 record for the Milwaukee Admirals and a .915 save percentage. He made his NHL debut in October against a then-undefeated Minnesota Wild, stopping 33 of 35 shots for the win. He got two other NHL starts in November and April before being thrust into playoff action with Juuse Saros on the sidelines.

He came on in relief of David Rittich in Game 1 when it was already out of hand, and stopped 30 of 32 shots in 45 minutes. Ingram started Game 2 and after allowing a goal on the first shot of the game, he turned aside the next 49 in a row before the OT winner got past him.

Colorado outshot the Preds 51-26 and had a 21-13 advantage in high-danger opportunities in that second game. The Avs had an expected goal rate of 4.64 in all situations in Game 2 and they scored just twice. Nashville has been blown out of the water and outclassed by the top-seed Avs so far, but it was Ingram who kept them in the fight and perhaps lifted the team’s spirits for Game 3 back on home ice.

His story is an inspiration. You’re never alone and help is there when you need it.

“I’m never quick to judge people. You don’t know what they are going through,” Ingram told Friedman. “They could be having a bad day. I guarantee somewhere there’s someone going through the same things you are. No one should go through it alone, there’s always someone willing to listen and relate to you. I know it’s hard to ask for help, but that stigma is going away. People have to know there is no shame in asking for a hand.”

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