Jonathan Toews

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Connor McDavid is great, but he can’t do it all for the Oilers

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At the start of the 2017-18 season the Edmonton Oilers had the second best odds to win the Stanley Cup. Even with the NHL’s reigning MVP and scoring champion and even after a wildly successful season that saw them come within a single game of the Western Conference Finals it still seemed to be a little too much, a little too fast.

First, for as good as the Oilers were last season a lot of it was dependent on Connor McDavid putting the team on his back and carrying them as far as he could. They also played Cam Talbot a ridiculous number of games and still don’t have anybody behind him that can be counted on to give him any kind of a consistent break. Add those two factors to a team that still doesn’t have a lot of depth and there are some reasons to maybe want to pump the brakes on the Stanley Cup talk.

It is still early in the season, but so far we are starting to see that play out on the ice.

After their loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday the Oilers are now just 2-5-0 on the season and have the second-worst record in the Western Conference.

McDavid is doing what McDavid always does.

He is in year three of his career and is still a human highlight reel every single time he touches the ice. His speed is unmatched. His creativity is off the charts. He is, at times, an unstoppable force and is once again the single biggest factor driving the Oilers offense.

Right now he is the only factor driving the Oilers’ offense.

With eight points so far this season that means he has either scored or assisted on more than 57 percent of the team’s goals.

He has been on the ice for nine of them, which is more than 65 percent.

Through the first seven games of the season the Oilers have scored only five goals this season when McDavid has not been on the ice. That is not a trend that can continue if the Oilers are going to have any hopes of getting out of this early season slump, let alone competing for a Stanley Cup. There is no one single player in the NHL that can make that much of a consistent impact without some secondary help.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup runs were not just about superstars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane. They were also about the complementary players and secondary scoring options that could step up and fill the back of the net when the top tier guys had their inevitable stretches where they would get shut down (and there always comes a time when the top players get shut down for a stretch. Sometimes in the playoffs, too).

Right now the Oilers do not have those secondary options, and if the offense is not coming from Connor McDavid, it is not coming from anybody.

To be fair, they have only had Leon Draisaitl, their second-most important offensive player, for only three games this season. But even a return from him is not a guarantee to be enough based on the makeup of the rest of the roster.

Over the summer the Oilers traded their third-leading scorer (Jordan Eberle) straight up for Ryan Strome, a player that has never had the single-season output that Eberle had a year ago in what was widely considered a down year for him. Strome has two points in seven games.

A year ago the Oilers had big — and mostly unexpected — seasons from players like Patrick Maroon and Mark Letestu as they combined to score 43 goals, each of them setting new career highs. Together, they had a combined shooting percentage of 14.5 percent, a nearly five percent increase over their career averages. That increase in shooting percentage was probably worth an additional 10-12 goals between the two.

There is no guarantee they can duplicate that success.

The Oilers are probably not as bad as their early season record indicates, especially when Draisaitl is back. Even so, McDavid is still going to need more help than he is getting from his teammates if the Oilers are going to do anything close to what was expected from them at the start of the season. Whether or not they have the roster around him to do that remains to be seen.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Sebastian Aho one of the reasons for optimism in Carolina this season

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Even though the organization hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2009 there is a lot of excitement around the Carolina Hurricanes heading into the 2017-18 season. A lot of the attention is directed toward their young defense that is the backbone of their current rebuild, but they also have a ton of talent up front and leading the way is 20-year-old forward Sebastian Aho.

Aho was one of the standout rookies that shined in the NHL during the 2017-18 season, and while he didn’t get as much attention as Auston Matthews or Patrik Laine, his performance was still one worth paying attention. His 24 goals were third among all rookies, and he did that while not scoring a goal until his 15th game of the season.

That goal total put him in some pretty strong company in recent NHL history.

Since the start of the 2005-06 season only 11 players under the age of 20 have scored at least 24 goals in their debut season. That list, other than Aho, includes Sidney Crosby, Matthews, Laine, Jeff Skinner, Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Jack Eichel, John Tavares, Jordan Staal, and Jonathan Toews. Pretty good list to be a part of, and everything about Aho’s rookie season would seem to indicate it was not a fluke performance. He was a possession-driving forward (53 percent Corsi) and averaged more than two-and-a-half shots on goal per game, finishing as one of the league’s top rookies in terms of shot on goals.

That is the early career resume of a potential All-Star level player for a long, long time.

Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said this week, via Chip Alexander of the News & Observer, that he is going to give Aho one more season on the wing to help his development before moving him back to his natural position of center.

With Aho becoming one of the focal points of the roster the Hurricanes definitely have a lot of reasons for optimism heading into the season.

Their defense has helped them become one of the best shot suppression teams in the league in recent years, while they are hoping that Scott Darling can help solve the long-standing problem in net. Jeff Skinner is one of the league’s best goal-scorers and they now have an intriguing collection of younger forwards just ready to hit the prime of their careers with Aho and Teuvo Teravainen leading the way.

We’ve been hearing about the Hurricanes’ young talent for a couple of years now, and they have entered previous seasons as a popular sleeper pick to make some noise in the Eastern Conference, and this year’s version might be the team to finally fulfill some of that promise.

Joel Ward decides not to kneel during national anthem

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Earlier this week, San Jose Sharks winger Joel Ward said that he would consider kneeling/protesting in some way during the national anthem, possibly becoming the first black NHL player to do so in the process.

Upon further reflection, Ward has decided not to do that.

The 36-year-old released an expansive statement on the matter that’s well worth a read:

Here is a key excerpt from his larger statement:

  … How can we be a part of the solution and not part of the problem – or be another distraction from what the real issues are?

Although I fully support those who before me have taken the lead in bringing awareness to these issues, I will not kneel during the national anthem like my brothers have done.

But now that I have the world’s attention, let’s meet at the kitchen table, the locker room or in the stands and continue the healing process.”

Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews shared a similar opinion about “the real issues” being lost amid sometimes-heated debates, as the Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Lazerus reports.

“I’m sure a lot of players are doing some great work off the field at making that situation better, and educating young kids,” Toews said. “But at the end of the day as players, we all respect the flag, and respect the country, whether it’s Canada or the United States. We respect those who fought of reverting we have here. We need to get back to the real conversation and start trying to make a difference.”

Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds was rumored to be willing to join Ward if he decided to kneel. He supported Ward’s statement on Thursday, also signaling that attention should return to the issues that prompted Colin Kaepernick to kneel.

For those wondering if the NHL would end the tradition of anthem performances before games, the owners met and agreed to maintain the practice.

As PHT covered earlier on Thursday, the NHLPA came out in support of players making “peaceful protests.”

Such protests might happen, yet it doesn’t sound like Ward will be kneeling to make such a demonstration. We’ll see if anyone decides to do so as the 2017-18 regular season begins next Wednesday.

More on this issue

Penguins make controversial decision to accept White House invitation.

Donald Trump tweets about their visit.

Auston Matthews and others on the subject.

Ho-Sang, Okposo also weigh in.

Under Pressure: Leon Draisaitl

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This post is part of Oilers Day on PHT…

In a fairer world, most of the pressure in Edmonton would be on Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli.

After all, Chiarelli could have conceivably locked up Leon Draisaitl to a far cheaper contract extension if he was a little more proactive about it. The Oilers barely wasted a second in signing Connor McDavid to an extension when they got the chance – and justifiably so – but you wonder if they dropped the ball in allowing Draisaitl to pump up his value with a breakthrough contract year.

And, beyond discussions of Draisaitl + McDavid at $21 million compared to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane at that price (not to mention the cheaper duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin), Chiarelli is the one who’s been handing out questionable contracts to the likes of Milan Lucic and Kris Russell.

Anyway, when you leaf through reactions to the $8.5 million per year price, the debates don’t seem to revolve around whether or not the Oilers overpaid Draisaitl; instead, much of the bickering centers on how excessive the contract is.

That’s not great for a 21-year-old who still boasts a pretty small resume, especially if his bloated contract eventually forces other, talented players out of Edmonton.

The big concern is that the Oilers paid big for Draisaitl in large part based on his production alongside McDavid, while cap realities would likely prompt Edmonton to ask each player to center their own line.

In 2016-17, Draisaitl’s most common linemates were Patrick Maroon and then McDavid, and by a large margin.

Just like with virtually any talented forward, Draisaitl saw a significant boost with McDavid vs. without him, as Jonathan Willis illustrated in detail for Oilers Nation. That’s not the big German forward’s fault, really, but it makes it scarier to hand him a massive extension without a large body of evidence that he can be a difference-maker on his own.

The Oilers gave Draisaitl a bigger deal than a scorer with a larger body of work (and thus more proof that he’s a true top center) in Ryan Johansen and generally made him one of the highest-paid centers in the NHL.

Now, it’s not all doom and gloom. After all, part of the reason for the big raise was how well he played in the playoffs, sometimes without McDavid goosing his numbers.

Even so, that’s a small sample size, and now many people will expect Draisaitl to be the Malkin to McDavid’s Crosby.

That’s a dangerous proposition, and the Oilers might not have a ton to fall back on if Draisaitl has trouble dealing with the stresses that come with getting a huge contract. No doubt about it, he’s under a lot of pressure.

Video: Don Cherry sings ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ at Cubs game

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So, CBC personality Don Cherry was the Chicago Cubs’ recent guest for their traditional rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch.

He’s not the first hockey-person to do so, as Jonathan Toews was involved in a memorable butchering of that song, among others.

Cherry put his own spin on it, giving fans a chance to review both his singing, lyrics, and his suit (the latter of which was relatively understated):

Russian Machine Never Breaks and Sportsnet note that Cherry tweaked the lyrics just a bit, but he earned some points with fans in Chicago by getting a cheap Blackhawks pop.

Hey, if nothing else, it provided an opportunity to dust off that awesome, ancient photo via Getty.