If it feels like Connor McDavid is sucking up about half the oxygen in conversations about the Battle of Alberta, it’s because he should be. There aren’t many examples throughout the history of hockey where the gap between the attention a player has been given by the opposition (tonnes) and the success said opposition has had (none) has been this vast.
The Calgary Flames were the third-best team in the NHL’s regular season in goals against per game, allowing an average of 2.5. Through four games of the second round, they’ve allowed McDavid alone to average a points-per-game of 2.75.
McDavid has 10 multi-point games in 11 outings, becoming one of four players to ever have seven straight multi-point playoff games. He has 25 playoff points, 10 better than the next highest total of a player who isn’t a linemate (that would be Nikita Kucherov, who has 15 points in 11 games).
On several occasions I’ve compared what McDavid is doing to what a young LeBron James used to do in Cleveland, which was to bring along good-but-not-great supporting casts into big situations (in LeBron’s case, regular finals appearances). But in hockey, one forward can play marginally more than only a third of the game, and there’s no guarantee they even touch the puck the way you can run an offence through a specific player in basketball.
So why is the LeBron-McDavid analogy not worth throwing away?
I’ve been on the other side of greatness, and seen the contortions those players can cause even when they’re not on the rink. My experience isn’t with McDavid and the NHL, but at varying levels I’ve seen how problems of managing great players goes beyond their goals and assists. I played NCAA hockey against absolute forces Jonathan Toews, Phil Kessel and Joe Pavelski. I’ve helped a coaching staff in the AHL game-plan against a rising star such as Kyle Connor and others like him. Great players do so much more to beat their opposition than what shows up on the highlights.
We see it in the media, but they also …
Eat up the coaching oxygen
Have you ever wondered why coaches bother with stuff like, “Not admitting a hurt player isn’t playing,” or the opposite? The reasoning is simple: In a playoff series, the clock between one game ending at the next beginning is finite, and in that time – usually about 45 hours or so – you’ve gotta sleep twice, eat a half-dozen times and occasionally travel. Coaches need to go through the previous game to pick apart what happened, reach a conclusion, then game-plan how to adjust in time for the next game.
They need this information hours before the game so they can present it to their players. Ideally, they’d have this information ready the next day, so they aren’t springing changes on players at the last minute. In a nutshell, the minutes after a game ends are awfully valuable, and anything you can force your opponent to spend time on that takes away from something else that they could be evaluating more closely is a win.
So, when you sit there and look at the opposing lineup, you have conversations as a coaching staff about which of your own lines matches up best against the opposition's, and who on your team you want to protect. To do that accurately, you need to know who’s available to the other side. Hence, if you waste time on a guy who’s not in, it’s time taking from decisions that actually matter.
That’s something like what McDavid does to the opposing coaching staff. They’d have someone picking through his shifts, looking at ways things went wrong and right against him, and assessing what they could do differently. They’d be showing video to the team, and talking about a plan to slow the man. They’d be pulling aside individuals and talking about their specific work against him. If they aren’t doing these things, they’d get buried even worse, so they have to.
Now, because of that, less attention would be going to combing through other game states – the penalty kill and power play, or low-zone defending, or something minute like defence against a set break out. Just the little things that aren’t notable until they are, where suddenly you realize your team hasn’t paid any attention to, say, the forecheck off a lost neutral-zone draw, because you’ve been spending so much time on a single player.
They disrupt the flow of your bench
If you’re concerned about who’s on the ice against McDavid – and you should be – then you have to be concerned with who goes out there when he’s on the bench, because you need certain people available at the right time. So instead of just rolling four lines over the boards, you’re not putting your freshest guys out or the guys you want in specific zones, so much as you’re preparing for the McDavid minutes. He’s taking you out of the game you prefer to play without taking a stride.
Again, it’s the attention he eats up – glancing over to see if he’s standing and waiting to go over the boards – that could be going to other facets of the game and other players. (At least that effort is justified if you’re containing said star player, but it hasn’t been the case for the Flames to date.)
They force you into non-preferred systems play
The St. Louis Blues had success against the Colorado Avalanche in Game 2 of their series by adjusting how they defended against the Avs' quick forwards. They sagged off on rushes, and forced them to make plays above (or shoot through the D) rather than getting in foot races wide, which comes with keeping tighter neutral-zone gaps. The Avs went from 17 rush chances in Game 1 to just three in Game 2. Colorado adjusted after that loss, but for a night, it helped the Blues.
That’s the sort of thing that happens with a guy such as McDavid. Your team ends up saying, “Yes, we like to keep tight gaps, but we just can’t against this guy, he’ll beat us wide. So we’re gonna sag back.” And as much as you’d like to say, “Only do that against McDavid,” hockey happens too fast to employ an a la carte defensive structure, player by player. So, teams will make some blanket change to stop the opposition’s biggest threat, which can in turn help some other players. Basically, great players force teams out of their preferred game plan.
Their gravity creates room for everyone else
Evander Kane is good, but lordy lordy, is there a better roster slot in the league than the one that’s on Connor McDavid’s wing right now? “No” is the answer we’re looking for here.
I love that the NBA has a way to measure an individual player’s “gravity,” which is basically “If Steph Curry is standing beyond the arc without the ball, how close do defenders stick to him versus if it’s some random bench player?” His stronger gravity pulls a team’s defence out of shape a bit because they can’t give him an inch, which creates room inside for others.
Along that vein, you can imagine how much gravity McDavid has right now. You can’t take your eyes off the guy, and defenders logically have to know where he is at all times, which makes life for a guy like Kane a lot easier. This isn’t a knock on Kane the player, who still has had to cash those chances in, and he has. But what McDavid is doing is undeniably a huge benefit to Kane.
In the end, Connor McDavid is going to put up a whack of points, just a whole busload this post-season, particularly if he gets to play in three or four rounds. But it’s worth noting that his impact goes beyond his actual ice time, as he’s tying the Flames and all their ideal game-planning in knots even when he’s on the bench.
Maybe McDavid can’t play every minute like LeBron James could for those Cavaliers teams, but he can still make each one hell for the opposition trying to figure him out.