Wednesday Night Hockey: McDavid’s Oilers mirroring Lemieux’s early days with Penguins

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Barring some kind of a miraculous late-season turnaround it is looking like the Edmonton Oilers are going to fall short of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third time in the first four years of Connor McDavid‘s NHL career. If that turnaround is going to happen, it is going to have to start quickly, and collecting two points against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that will be without Evgeni Malkin (suspension) and Olli Maatta (shoulder injury) on Wednesday Night Hockey would probably be a good place to start.

Given that the Oilers are entering the Wednesday having lost seven out of their past eight games, and have only won six of their previous 22 games overall, nothing is going to come easy for them.

If the Oilers do end up missing the playoffs again it is going to be an incredibly disappointing start to the McDavid era in Edmonton.

Over the past decade the only sustained success the Oilers have had was winning No. 1 overall picks in the draft lottery. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov all arrived in Edmonton with the hope and anticipation that a top pick can help rebound a franchise, but none of them came close to matching the McDavid hope. He was supposed to be the guy that would change the fortunes of the franchise and be the player that would lift them out of the doldrums of the league. Overall, he has probably been even better than anticipated and right now in year four is the most dominant, game-changing offensive player in the world. Offensively speaking, he is off to one of the best starts offensively in NHL history.

It is that development that makes the Oilers’ lack of success with him so shocking, and it remains an indictment of the organization around him that they haven’t been able to piece together a consistent winner.

The word “waste” has been thrown around a lot when it comes to McDavid’s early career and the Oilers. But I don’t think we truly grasp just how bad it has been.

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In the history of the league there have only been 16 players who have played at least 200 games and averaged at least 1.28 points per game through their first four NHL seasons. McDavid is one of those 16 players, while he is one of only three (Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin being the other two) who saw their careers begin after the 1995 season.

Take a look at the list and the number of playoff appearances and playoff games they had played in through their first four years (sorted by total playoff games).

Again, this is not an indictment on McDavid or his career personally. This is a statement about the Oilers’ inability to build a team around him. It is fair to point out that a number of these players began their careers in the 1980s when a far higher percentage of the league made the playoffs, so that might skew this a little bit. But even when you look at the more recent players (Crosby, Ovechkin, Forsberg, Lindros, Selanne) there is still a pretty sizable gap in terms of success.

Ovechkin’s Capitals, for example, missed the playoffs in his first two years. By year four, they had made consecutive appearances in the postseason, were in a Game 7 in the second-round following a 50-win regular season, and came back the next season to win 54 games and the Presidents’ Trophy on their way to being one of the most dominant teams in the league.

By year four, Crosby’s Penguins were playing in their second consecutive Stanley Cup Final … and winning it.

Does anyone think the Oilers are a year away from winning 54 games, the Presidents’ Trophy, or the Stanley Cup?

What’s even worse for the Oilers is that when the the likes of Crosby and Ovechkin joined their respective teams, they had far less impact talent around them than the Oilers did when McDavid joined them. They didn’t even really have anyone that was comparable to the young trio of recent top picks in Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Jordan Eberle that was already in place in Edmonton (Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal didn’t arrive in Pittsburgh until the year after Crosby; Nicklas Backstrom didn’t join the Capitals until the next year, while Mike Green only played in 20 games in Ovechkin’s rookie year). There should have been a solid foundation in place to build around.

Really, the only comparable to what McDavid and the Oilers have experienced so far is what happened with the Penguins and their franchise-saving player, Mario Lemieux, in the mid-1980s.

The early Lemieux era Penguins were so poorly constructed that even with a player that was on a Gretzky-ian level, and in a league where 16 of the 21 teams (76 percent) made the playoffs, they were unable to get there even once in his first four season. It wasn’t until year five that Lemieux made his first ever playoff appearance.

They were so hapless in the early stages of Lemieux’s career that this situation (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) unfolded at the tail end of year four with the team trying to get No. 66 what would have been his first-ever playoff appearance.

The Oilers haven’t been quite that bad, but the fact that team is the situation they are most comparable to in the early stages of a generational talent’s career is problematic.

A lack of playoff games is also probably not the early career comparison to Lemieux that McDavid wants.

If you’re an Oilers fan reading this and looking for positives it’s that the Penguins eventually got their act together and over the next few years assembled an arsenal of Hall of Famers around Lemieux, won two Stanley Cups, and were one of the league’s elite teams for more than a decade. But given how much work there seems to be needed around McDavid, the Oilers seem like they are several years away from getting there.

Even this year, in a season where McDavid is playing the best hockey of his career and on pace for 123 points, and in a year where the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff field is as mediocre as it has ever been, the playoffs are still falling out of reach. Of the 20 players who have topped 123 points since 1990, only two of them played on teams that missed the playoffs.

One player alone can not make a team in the NHL because they only impact a third of the game.

But history still shows it is awfully hard to squander an offensive player this dominant.

John Forslund (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Liam McHugh alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie. Additionally, Kathryn Tappen will be providing reports and conducting interviews on-site in Pittsburgh.

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.