"Personally, could be better" -- Connor McDavid addresses Edmonton Oilers' defensive woes, and his own

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The Edmonton Oilers have now been out of the playoffs longer than they were in them, even as the post mortems, autopsies and obituaries continue to flow like tears in various corners of Oil Country.

Surprising, then, to this observer when the most important Oiler of all, franchise centrepiece Connor McDavid, claimed to have not begun to analyze the series in his media exit interview on Friday afternoon. But the captain proceeded to explain his rationale in his usual level-headed manner, and soon had me nodding in understanding his approach.

“I haven’t really looked back. It’s been less than a week. I’m just trying to refresh, there’s lots of time to look back… as a player it’s a little different, you need a break. You need to relax, and you need to look at it with a clear head. When it’s so sudden it’s very easy to be frustrated, you’re just not thinking clearly. So you need to clear your head first, then look back at it. Take the positives, take the negatives, and figure out what exactly went wrong.

But when pressed by reporters on the hot button issue of the Oilers’ defensive play, McDavid seemed to have been doing some thinking already, talking mostly in the “we” but pointing a finger at himself in the process.

“That’s an issue that we’ve been trying to fix for a bit now. We seemed to get it down in the regular season but for whatever reason it wasn’t there in the playoffs… Obviously it’s not where it needs to be. The teams that win are the teams that defend, and we haven’t seemed to figure that out yet. I thought we took some big steps playing defensively during the season…. Personally, obviously, could be better.” 

The captain struggled to find better words before simply repeating “could be better” in reference to his own defensive play.

There is truth in those words, as there is pretty much any time Connor speaks. His matter-of-fact tone about this particular issue was music to these ears. Many folks would become defensive in another sense of the word when questioned so directly about a perceived weakness, but to McDavid it is an issue that needs to be addressed in order to make the next step.

One thing’s for sure. McDavid’s offense is not the problem:

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Yet there has been some blowback from some corners of the media and the fan base that despite their high-end production, the club’s offensive stars (McDavid and Leon Draisaitl) have been derelict in minding the store. That same question was posed to Oilers GM Ken Holland at his own exit interview earlier in the week. The old goalie made the first save and demonstrated fine rebound control in the process, deflecting the attention from the twosome to the team as a whole.

“So they are getting better. They are getting better. But I also think in this playoff series we were playing against battle tested. Some players there had won three Stanley Cups. They had to learn that too, and we’re learning it. And you’re focusing on the two guys, but certainly our entire team, we’re learning that defence is as important as offence in terms of going for long playoff runs.”

While acknowledging the bitter disappointment of the series loss to Chicago, Holland pointed out the significant improvements the club made in the foreshortened regular season, firing off the following (accurate) statistics in a hail of bullet points.

  • from 25th to 15th in (per-game) goals against
  • from 20th to 14th in goals for
  • from 9th to 1st in powerplay production
  • from 30th (!) to 2nd (!!) in penalty kill clear rate
  • from 25th to 12th in points percentage

Measurable, and significant, improvement in all the major categories. Into the top half of the league in offence, defence, and results. Elite levels on special teams.

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Alas, that last which was a difference maker all season long was only marginally so in the play-ins. The Oilers won the special teams battle in Game 2, and won that game in the process. In the other three games, each team scored the identical number of powerplay goals, and Chicago won the 5-on-5 battle in each case.

Clearly, work to be done, as both Holland and McDavid acknowledged. The progress made in the regular season needs to be duplicated and built upon in 2020-21, and more importantly needs to carry some sustain into the playoffs. Presumably without a 20-week break between the two, which so upset the natural rhythms of the game in 2020.

Both GM and captain gave careful answers, accepting responsibility and (correctly) sharing it with the team. Both, of course, have skin in the game.

One astute observer who is not constricted by ties to the team is TSN hockey insider Frank Seravalli, who covers all 31 NHL teams, perhaps with a special emphasis on the seven Canadian clubs but not specifically on the Oilers. The heir apparent to the network’s departing hockey guru Bob McKenzie, Seravalli showed his chops in an outstanding interview with host Allan “Lowetide” Mitchell on TSN 1260‘s The Lowdown With Lowetide on Thursday morning.

Not only did Seravalli provide the valuable 30,000-foot view of national correspondents placing a team in its proper context, he demonstrated solid understanding on the specific issues facing the Oilers And he was having none of the “let’s blame our best players” angle that often seems to gain traction in tough times.

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After talking about the playoffs in general during the first part of the segment once the topic turned to  the Oilers around the 12:00 mark Seravalli got right to the point.

“I gotta tell you I really don’t understand any criticism at all about Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.  I get that the series came down to attention to detail, and the Oilers didn’t perform when needed. But 15 points in 4 games that those two players put up, and the way that Connor McDavid came out in Game 2 to try and right the ship. McDavid and Draisaitl are like sixth and seventh on the list of things to complain about if not lower than that.

“You go down the list and try to figure out the things that are ailing this team… Your goaltenders had an .864 save percentage combined (actually .869). I don’t know how you can win with that type of performance. Your wingers are certainly an issue, you didn’t get anything from Athanasiou; you didn’t know what to do with Nugent-Hopkins, he started and played most of the series on the McDavid line but really should have been on the line with Draisaitl, then they finally get together for the last seven or eight minutes of Game 4 and produce some quality scoring chances and you’re saying ‘well where was that?’ Then you’ve got your issues on defence as well. This team desperately needs a shot in the arm from Bouchard and Broberg, whenever that’s coming. And they need more from everyone else. 

“It’s constantly the same issue that we’ve been talking about for the last number of years. You’ve got McDavid and Draisaitl producing at an All-World level, and you’ve got such little help and support from the other guys around them. The way that their playoffs played out was their last number of seasons before this one in a nutshell. It’s just that they had such a strong regular season getting to this point that we thought those obstacles no longer existed.   

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“The other criticism laid at the feet of McDavid and Draisaitl is their defensive consciousness. Why can’t McDavid be more like Sidney Crosby and be that 200-foot player? Let’s stop talking about the things Connor McDavid doesn’t do. That’s not why he’s a $100 million player. 

“Could certain attention to detail things be better? Could Draisaitl take a more direct path to the point after a faceoff and get in the shooting lane? Of course. Those are little things that help you win that people want to see and need to see. But the way [McDavid and Draisaitl] played defence in their own zone wasn’t the reason why the Oilers lost to the 12th seeded Chicago Blackhawks.” 

“If you want to talk about fire and energy and leadership, point to the first 19 seconds of Game 2 as to what McDavid brings from a leadership perspective. If the rest of the team can’t get on board, you can’t pull a semi for four or five games in a series, and if you can, to think that it will last four rounds is crazy.

Bottom line, lots of folks are sour about the early demise of the hub city host to a lower-ranked team. Hard not to be, not after all these years of disappointments built on the shoulders of other disappointments. But there is real progress to report in 2019-20, summarized statistically by Holland a few screens up the page.

Let’s leave the last word to Connor McDavid, and an optimistic word at that for Oil fans:

“Let’s take a look where we’re at this off-season as compared to last off-season. We’ve definitely made strides, we brought in pieces, we have more stability. Last season we didn’t even have a GM, there was lots of questions as to what would happen with the coaching spot. Now those holes have been filled with great people, there’s a lot more stability.

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“In terms of the players I think we took a step in the right direction, knowing what we have to do to be successful. We did it most of the regular season, obviously when it came time when it mattered most, we dropped the ball.  I think we still made some steps, we’ll learn and grow from it.

___

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Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy