It isn’t the fact that they are first and second in league scoring. That’s the same story as last year. It’s the fact they are both “plus” players. In other words, they are scoring more than they are being scored on. That’s a change from last season, where Leon Draisaitl finished the year -7. Connor McDavid was -6.
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It might seem odd to the casual observer that the top scorers in the NHL wouldn’t be “plus players”. It’s worth mentioning that Plus/Minus can be deceiving, since it only counts goals at even strength. If you include Power Play goals, they more than make up the difference. But getting scored on at even strength is still an issue. After Edmonton’s early exit in last year’s Play-In Round, both players were called out for their defensive play. And that was despite the fact McDavid scored 9 points, and Leon 6, in just 4 games.
There’s a firmly rooted preconception at work here. The notion is that success in the postseason depends on two-way play. In other words, first line centers can’t expect to win games by simply outscoring their defensive inadequacies.
Looking at how Connor McDavid’s game has evolved in 2020-21
The Emergence of the Two Way Center
As I mentioned in passing in a prior article, the emergence of the premier two-way center can be traced to Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings in the 2000s. Datsyuk, who won the Selke Trophy for best defensive forward in 2008, 2009, and 2010, was a key member of the core that led the Red Wings to Stanley Cup Championships in 2008.
The team the Red Wings defeated in the Stanley Cup Final that year was the Pittsburgh Penguins, featuring a younger Sidney Crosby. At the time, the narrative surrounding Crosby’s game was whether he could transition from being a purely high-scoring player into more of a two-way player, just like Pavel. There were precedents that came before Pavel Datsyuk, like Peter Forsberg, Sergei Fedorov, or Steve Yzerman. But it wasn’t until Datsyuk and the success of the Red Wings that people began to take notice.
After the Penguins beat the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2009, the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks featured Jonathan Toews, another prominent two-way center. Then came the Boston Bruins in 2011 with Patrice Bergeron. Then Anze Kopitar and the Los Angeles Kings. And then more recently, Ryan O’Reilly and the St. Louis Blues. Each of them have won at least one Selke Trophy. In fact, between 2008 and 2017, every Stanley Cup Champion featured an eventual Selke winner.
And so the same narrative for Sidney Crosby now exists for Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Before the Edmonton Oilers can evolve into a true Stanley Cup Contender, their two-way play needs to improve.
What’s going on with the Oilers
Looking at the Edmonton Oilers’ performance early in the season, it is difficult to see any improvement on the defensive side of the puck. The Oilers have allowed 43 goals in 12 games, good for 3rd worst in the league.
But when you look a little closer, it becomes obvious that Draisaitl and McDavid aren’t the reason. Draisaitl is currently +12. McDavid is only +1, but he leads the Oilers in Corsi For Percentage (see here at naturalstattrick.com). In other words, even though McDavid’s line is still getting scored on, they are allowing the fewest shots against, while creating the most shots for.
What this means is that McDavid and Draisaitl’s respective lines are currently playing the best two-way hockey for the Oilers. And this certainly wasn’t the case in previous seasons.
What is McDavid doing differently?
I’ve been watching the Edmonton Oilers play the last few games with this in mind. I’ve noticed that Connor McDavid is essentially doing one thing differently. He’s taking fewer risks. That cautious approach has led to these results:
- McDavid is maintaining more possession of the puck in the offensive zone;
- When turnovers happen, they are happening deeper in the offensive zone;
- Because they are happening deeper in the offensive zone, the opposing team is having a harder time breaking out;
- When the opposing team is breaking out, the Oilers are better able to intercept them in the neutral zone and force a turnover there.
All of these elements are related, and are working together to make McDavid even more of a nightmare for opposing teams.
Not long ago, certain teams were obsessed with possession metrics. The theory was that if they could hang on to the puck the longest, they would allow the fewest scoring chances against.
That line of reasoning was never fully embraced, and it’s less relevant in today’s game. But for McDavid, more possession means taking fewer chances.
McDavid is the best player I have ever seen at gaining the zone. That hasn’t changed. But I suspect that in past years, McDavid was taking more chances off the rush. And he was taking more chances generally. While this was entertaining, this was also leading to a number of chances going the other way. What I’m seeing now is that when McDavid gains the zone, he is making more of an effort to maintain possession of the puck by initiating the cycle.
Cycling the puck down low
After gaining the zone, McDavid tends to distribute the puck to his teammates, who are cycling the puck down low. He could also initiate the cycle by dumping the puck into the back wall and beating the defender to it, but he isn’t doing too much of this. Instead, he’s hanging on to the puck as much as possible.
Cycling the puck down low is the essence of the saying “the best defense is a good offense”. It isn’t very exciting to watch. But it allows the team to hold the puck where it’s safest. As long as the puck is in the offensive zone, getting scored on is impossible.
McDavid never spent much time in the Oilers’ defensive zone, but I suspect that this year he is spending even less. Part of this equation is that the Oilers’ defensemen seem to have gotten better at breaking out of their own zone.
Breaking out of the zone
Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear are the most frequent blueliners when Connor McDavid is out there. They are also benefiting from a high Corsi For Percentage. I certainly noticed that when these two are on the ice, it seems as though the transition game is the smoothest.
Of course, it’s easier to initiate a breakout when there hasn’t been any sustained possession time in the defensive zone. It’s easier to limit possession time in the defensive zone, when the play is broken up in the neutral zone. And it’s easier to break up the play in the neutral zone when the opposing team struggles to break out of their zone.
All these things are related, but they all start with that one simple change. Fewer risks in the offensive zone. Fewer chances off the rush. Fewer cross-seam passes. Less drives to the middle. More shots from the half-wall and the point. And more resetting in the neutral zone to sustain the attack.
According to his page at nhl.com, McDavid is currently drawing 51.9%, an improvement over his 44.4% career average. Players can be expected to get better at faceoffs with age, so it isn’t surprising to see improvement there. Obviously, faceoff wins lead to more puck possession.
Remaining Areas of Concern
Connor McDavid’s line is having no trouble transitioning to attack off a quick breakout. But I’ve noticed no improvement in McDavid’s game when the other team manages to establish sustained possession in the defensive zone. Those issues are twofold. McDavid and his linemates are still struggling to break out of their own zone. Not only that, they are still giving up high danger scoring chances in their own end.
Whether those are issues that actually need addressing remains to be seen. Resolving a personnel issue might help.
It’s still early in the season, but I think we’ve seen enough to take notice that McDavid’s game has evolved. Like Sidney Crosby before him, he appears to be developing into more of a two-way player. And that would surely would be an exciting development for Edmonton Oilers fans.