The evolution of Connor McDavid: How Oilers star became the NHL's best goal scorer

Connor McDavid is scoring more than ever this season. Here's how he is getting it done.

Connor McDavid is in the midst of one of the best goal-scoring seasons of the modern era. (Getty Images)
Connor McDavid is in the midst of one of the best goal-scoring seasons of the modern era. (Getty Images)

Connor McDavid has been a superstar since entering the league.

From his first game in 2015 through to the end of last season, nobody is even remotely close to his absurd 697 points in 497 games. His 1.43 points per game is well above Nikita Kucherov’s 1.25 in the same time frame, and his points total is 74 more than Patrick Kane’s 623, which ranks second over that time.

McDavid, who has won the Art Ross Trophy four times in the past six seasons, has been head and shoulders above the pack in terms of production.

The one area where he had been a "mere mortal" was goal scoring. What does that actually mean for McDavid, though? Prior to this season, he was fourth in raw goals since entering the league and two of the three players ahead of him, teammate Leon Draisaitl (third) and Alex Ovechkin (first), had played 34 and 27 more games than him, respectively. Auston Matthews, who was second, had played 80 fewer games than McDavid. Still, he’s never won a Rocket Richard Trophy and for a player like McDavid, you know that’s something he wanted to change.

Well, this season he is changing that and reached yet another career milestone by scoring his 60th goal of the campaign on Wednesday.

After scoring at a 0.49 goals-per-game rate through his first seven seasons, McDavid is scoring at an eye-popping 0.83 goals-per-game rate this season. He is 10 goals up on second place David Pastrnak and has the Rocket all but locked up.

Perhaps more significantly, he has a real chance to score more than 65 goals in a single season, which would make him the first player this millennium to do so. Ovechkin, who is arguably the greatest scorer of all time, topped out at 65 in 2007-08, while Steven Stamkos (60, 2012) and Matthews (60, 2022) are the only other players who have hit 60 this century.

So the question becomes: How did McDavid find a whole new level of goal scoring? Let’s break it down.

Scoring off the rush

In terms of raw numbers, the key things that would help increase his goal total are all up. He is shooting a career high 4.29 shots on net per game, surpassing his previous career high of 3.93 last season, which resulted in the second-highest goal total (44) of his career.

McDavid is clearly confident in his shot and while he’s always a threat due to his speed and ability to stickhandle while flying down the ice, now he’s not even beating defensemen before scoring. He’s just backing them off with his speed and shooting it right past them and the goalie. This is a good example:

Having watched and classified every goal McDavid has scored so far this season, I have counted six in the category of “5-on-5 shot off the rush,” plus another three that were the same type of goal but on the power play. Last season, by comparison, I counted three goals in this category across all situations.

Here is an example on the power play. He’s not even looking to beat the defenseman anymore, instead he just backs him off with his speed then uses that space to unleash a wrister into the net.

This is a significant development in his game.

Breakaway goals

Last season he scored eight “mini breakaway” goals where he was either all alone with the goalie in tight or beat a defenseman wide and drove to the net all alone, along with two actual breakaway goals. He has six breakaway goals and six "mini breakaway" goals so far this season.

McDavid is always going to be dangerous off the rush so long as he has his speed. Every defenseman in the league is worried about being turned inside out by him, and his victim list is significant. He is too fast to play tight off the rush, and if the defenseman gives McDavid that extra cushion to protect himself from getting turnstiled, he’s simply going to shoot it past you. The idea of containing him becomes even more difficult.

Power-play goals (shot)

He’s also hunting his shot more on the power play. McDavid’s 20 power-play goals is already significantly more than his previous career high of 11 that he put up in the 2019-2020 season.

Much like at 5-on-5, he’s simply blowing pucks past goalies by himself, except when on the power play he's doing it off the half-wall. McDavid is launching 19.14 shots on net per 60 minutes on the power play, which is way above his previous career high of 15.91 last season. For reference, he had never been over 15 prior to last season. Overall, he ranks 10th in the league among regular power-play players (over 200 minutes) in that category.

He’s always had a good shot, but now he’s demanding the puck and shooting it past goalies on his own. McDavid already has eight goals this season off power-play shots and some of them he just walks in and scores with ease, like the one below.

I mean, Jake Allen doesn’t even move there.

Power-play goals (backdoor one-timers)

The threat of his shot along with Draisaitl’s one-timer on the other side has penalty killers scrambling at all times, which has led to another type of goal: backdoor one-timers.

Poor Chicago here, trying to figure out who is going to shoot between Draisaitl and McDavid as they get toyed with until one of them finally decides to bury it.

The Oilers are currently tracking to have the second highest power-play percentage in league history. Draisaitl leads all skaters in the league with a career-high 27 power-play goals, while McDavid is second with 20. They can simply rip the puck back and forth until one of them decides it’s time to shoot, not to mention both are capable of simply walking in clean and shooting all on their own and scoring. The options are endless and a big part of that is McDavid shooting — and scoring — more, which not only makes him more dangerous, but his teammates as well.

5-on-5 in-zone goals

McDavid is seeing a big jump in what I call “5-on-5 in-zone goals,” where the Oilers are in a half-court-like offense. It could be a rebound, it could be a nice individual goal — he has had a few this year where he has danced in the offensive zone off sustained pressured then scored — or it could be a quick cut and shoot.

His edgework is amazing and as much as we talk about the speed, his ability to create space for himself in tight spots really stands out now. It’s not just about rush offense. A lot of fans probably remember this goal against Anaheim.

It’s a simple forecheck with some zone time and when he gets the puck it doesn’t look like much is available, but one quick spin later and he’s walking in for an easy goal. He’s had a number of these goals this season where he’s able to create space, win a race for a rebound, or throw a puck on net that ends up as a goal. I have counted 11 of these goals so far this season compared to six in 2021-22.

This is an incredible goal-scoring season McDavid is putting together and when we look back on his career, it’s going to be a feather in his cap.

He’s shooting more often, he’s scoring more from distance, he’s creating more in tight and he has been deadly on the power play. You add that to his usual ability to beat defenders off the rush, get breakaways and stickhandle his way to goals, and the result is a season that will go down as one of the best of this millennium.