The Edmonton Oilers started the season 3-0-0. That’s good for them.
This is a team that went through some big changes this summer — new GM, new coach, new overpaid aging winger who’s supposed to provide some sort of missing answer (so far, so good!) — with the expectations and hopes for something, anything, to shake them out of their decades-long, nearly uninterrupted funk. A 3-0 start is at least something.
But one must look at how they got there, as well. It wasn’t because the goaltending was any good and it wasn’t necessarily because they outplayed their opponents on the whole. It was because, as one might have expected, everything is flowing through the only two players on the roster who are even approaching “high-end.”
The Oilers scored 14 goals, and one or both of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were on the ice for the vast majority of them. That’s both the extent of their power —being on the ice for that many goals in three games is incredible — and the relative weakness of their team depth. No one is allowed to be surprised by their start, though you can certainly argue things have gone better for the Oilers’ dynamic duo than even the biggest optimists would have reasonably forecasted.
Part of the reason they were on the ice for so many goals, though, is that they’re just on the ice a lot. Through three games, McDavid is averaging about 22 minutes per. Draisaitl is closer to 25. These are, predictably, some of the highest totals in the league (among forwards they rank first and fourth).
The long lingering discussion on whether we’ll ever see a real load management revolution come to the NHL crops up here once again. McDavid averaged about 23 a night all season as well and, due to his quality, never really suffered the kind of fatigue or “hit a wall” in terms of his production. You’d perhaps say that’s the right amount of minutes for him. As for Draisaitl, maybe it’s a quirk of how the first few games have gone, but last season was his career high for minutes per game and he came in at 22 and change. If he shoulders the same kind of workload seen so far this year — or anything vaguely resembling it — he’s going to be asked to put an extra 250ish minutes of hockey on his body in the regular season.
So on the one hand, this is a shrewd move by Dave Tippett. If you’re not likely to outscore your opponents much, if at all, when McDavid and Draisaitl are off the ice, the obvious solution is to have them on the ice as much as their bodies will allow. In general, teams should be more willing to put their best players over the board for 20-plus minutes on a nightly basis if they need it. While your Mike Babcocks might like to keep elites in the 19-to-20-minutes range, most coaches don’t have the kind of talent throughout the lineup that he or Jon Cooper do.
But what all this misunderstands about load management arguments in, say, the NBA, is that most often, there are two kinds of teams doing load management in the first place: Elite ones where they can sit a Steph Curry or a LeBron James for a quarter and not have it matter much because, well, they were gonna win anyway. The other teams that do it, to a different extent, are those that fundamentally understand the value of tanking (and yes, the value of tanking is far greater in the NBA than the NHL for myriad reasons). If you’re trying to be bad in the NBA, keeping your best players off the court for longer stretches saves them from the hard miles a largely meaningless basketball game puts on the body.
The NBA also has the luxury of a relatively small middle class relative to the NHL. There are a handful of truly elite teams, and more that are trying like hell to lose. This is rarely, if ever, the case in the NHL. Most occupy a squishy, decidedly mediocre middle, in which the extra 10 goals or so you might wring out of two or three extra minutes from two elite players over the course of a season are the difference between making the postseason and finishing 20th. The Oilers are certainly such a team.
Given the apparent pressure the organization feels to be competitive, specifically for McDavid, the only logical conclusion for them is to ask him to put in the minutes that would make them at least potentially competitive. They certainly haven’t done anything to support him in other ways, so to say he and Draisaitl need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps on this one is in some ways fair because, well, they can do it.
There’s no safety net here. Through three games, Edmonton outscored opponents 10-3 with one or both of them on the ice, and got outscored 4-6 with both of them off. Even Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who’s a good player, has been outscored by a good margin without McDavid and Draisaitl (minus-20 in all situations last year and this year).
The numbers on those 2019-20 goals-for differences (77 percent versus 40 percent) will both come back toward the mean, but the general idea will remain the same.
Unless one or both of McDavid and Draisaitl are on the ice, this team is going to look an awful lot like the same cellar-dweller crew they have for years. All this early-season optimism will evaporate in a hurry if the two best players on the team by a mile aren’t being used at some of the highest rates in the league.
Is that good for their long-term career prospects? No. But what other choice does this moribund franchise really have?
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