McDavid, Draisaitl are carrying the Oilers again: How far can they go?

Edmonton Oilers Connor McDavid Leon Draisaitl
Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

Even with their 4-2 loss to the Red Wings on Tuesday night the Oilers are still off to one of their best starts in years.

They are 9-2-0 as of Wednesday, have one of the NHL’s best records, and are probably exceeding whatever low expectations we have been conditioned to have for them at the start of every season.

The key to their early success is pretty much what you might expect.

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are playing like the All-World MVPs, they are and embarrassing NHL defenses on a nightly basis. The power play is like a group of sharks smelling blood in the water and is nearly unstoppable. They are, to this point, getting strong goaltending with Mikko Koskinen off to a fantastic start with a .920 save percentage in his first eight appearances. All important developments, and all of them working together have them on top of the Pacific Division and Western Conference.

If you wanted, you could probably point to the offseason addition of Zach Hyman with seven goals in his first 11 games, or the arrival of Duncan Keith via trade with Chicago, as turning point moves for the Oilers.

You would probably be wrong if you did that, though, because so far this Oilers team is eerily similar to every recent Oilers teams that has fallen short in recent seasons and has all of the same underlying issues lurking below the surface of its great early record.

Those problems, of course, are a shaky defense and a dependence on McDavid and Draisaitl to carry literally all of the offense.

That recipe has not worked before. Why should we think it will work this season?

The McDavid-Draisaitl dependence

This really is the foundation of the Oilers team as constructed. When one of them is on the ice, the Oilers are fine. When both are on the ice, they are dominant. If neither is on the ice, they are one of the worst teams in the league.

Through 11 games the Oilers have played nearly 265 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey with neither McDavid or Draisaitl on the ice. In those minutes the Oilers have attempted just 47%t of the shot attempts and been outscored by a 14-8 margin.

Those seven goals for newcomer Hyman? Only two of them (one shorthanded, one even-strength) have come without one of Edmonton’s two-headed monster on the ice next to him.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is Edmonton’s other big core player and has an impressive 14 assists as of Wednesday. He has also scored zero goals, while the bulk of those helpers (nine of them) have come on the power play where he is usually playing alongside McDavid and Draisaitl.

The shot attempt and goal numbers on a team level are pretty much identical to the previous six seasons. We have been over this before in this space (mainly because it keeps happening and the team never changes), but the table below shows their shot attempt share, goal share, goals for per 60 minutes and goals against per 60 minutes with neither on the ice during 5-on-5 play. It remains not good (again, we only keep pointing this out because it never changes).

The goal share is as bad as it has ever been, and while they are scoring more goals without those two than they typically do, the goals against are alarmingly high, even by Oilers standards.

Overall 35 of the Oilers’ 48 goals this season have come with one of those two superstars on the ice. Since the start of the 2020-21 season alone the Oilers are being outscored by 66-37 (that is a minus-29 goal differential) when neither McDavid or Draisaitl is on the ice during 5-on-5 play. They control just 44% of the total shot attempts.

While there should be an expectation for a team to play worse without its top two players on the ice, the Oilers still take that to an extreme, and in a way that is unlike any serious Stanley Cup contender.

[Related: Oilers third in latest NHL Power Rankings]

Pick a contender. Any contender. Look at how they play without their top two players on the ice and compare it to Edmonton since the start of last season.

How about Florida? When neither Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau is on the ice? They control 51% of the shot attempts and have outscored teams by a 56-53 (plus-3) margin.

Vegas? Without Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone they control 53% of the shot attempts and outscored teams 104-89 (plus-15).

Colorado? Without Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen they have a 56% shot share and are outscoring teams by an 80-70 (plus-10) goal edge.

Carolina?  Without Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov they are at 53.3% shot share and are outscoring teams by a 65-53 (plus-12) goals edge.

Tampa Bay? Without Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point they have a 51.8% shot share and are outscoring teams by a 75-68 (plus-7) margin (and keep in mind this is also mostly without Nikita Kucherov as well).

We could go on with this, contender by contender, and see the same trend playing out. Contenders have depth. A lot of it. The Oilers have still not been able to adequately find that.

The defensive play

It was just a couple of weeks ago that head coach Dave Tippett got really angry when asked about the number of shots his team gives up, clinging to the same thing we always hear coaches and teams say when they give up a lot of shots — they are not good shots, we are keeping things to the outside, we are fine with that, etc. etc. etc. 

But this isn’t really that complicated. Good defensive teams do not give up a lot of shots. From high-danger areas, from low-danger areas, from any area. They keep the puck, they apply the pressure. And just to get a sense for the Oilers’ defensive struggles, they are allowing 2.69 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. That is 25th in the league. Near the bottom.

Their saving grace defensively has been the fact their penalty kill has been outstanding. And that is really what drives this Oilers team — two generational talents, and elite special teams. That is something. It can make you competitive. But it probably will not make you a Stanley Cup team or anything close to it. And that is the problem the Oilers have still been unable to solve around their two superstars.

Because for as good as the record looks right now, eventually that power play is going to level off a little. Even if it finishes the season at the 28 percent rate it has scored at the past two years (which is still an elite number, nearly unmatched in the salary cap era) there is still a regression to be had there. Eventually McDavid and Draisaitl are not going to team up for three goals every game.

That is when this team and how it is built will really be put to the test.

Do they finally have enough to pass that test? An early look below the surface of the record makes it seem questionable.

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    Ducks hire former Leafs, Islanders assistant Greg Cronin as head coach

    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Anaheim Ducks have hired veteran NHL assistant and AHL head coach Greg Cronin to be their new head coach.

    Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek announced the decision to hire the 60-year-old Cronin, who will be a first-time NHL head coach.

    Cronin has 12 years of experience as an NHL assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in two stints with the New York Islanders. The Massachusetts native has been the head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles since 2018, and he spent six years as a collegiate head coach at Northeastern.

    Verbeek called Cronin “the ideal fit” to take over a young, rebuilding team.

    “I felt we needed a teacher of the finer points of the game, and someone who has worked extensively over time with talented young players, helping them develop into successful NHL players,” Verbeek said. “Greg has done all that and more.”

    Cronin replaces Dallas Eakins, whose contract wasn’t renewed in April after the Ducks finished their fourth consecutive losing season of his tenure. Anaheim finished in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12.

    The Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. They’ve missed the playoffs in a franchise-record five straight seasons, and Anaheim was the NHL’s worst defensive team of the 21st century by several measures during the just-completed season.

    Cronin takes over a struggling team that is still loaded with young talent, including the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft and a wealth of farm prospects seemingly ready to break into the NHL. Anaheim has a solid long-term base with playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry and promising forward Mason McTavish.

    Cronin has never led an NHL bench, but he interviewed for the Boston Bruins’ vacancy a year ago.

    He becomes only the Ducks’ fourth permanent head coach since Henry and Susan Samueli bought the franchise from Disney in 2005, joining Randy Carlyle, Bruce Boudreau and Eakins.

    Canadiens sign Cole Caufield to 8-year, $62.8 million extension

    David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

    MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens signed Cole Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8 million contract extension.

    The deal, which will pay the 22-year-old winger an average annual salary of $7.85 million, runs through the 2030-31 season.

    Caufield scored 26 goals and added 10 assists in 46 games in 2022-23 before he underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in February.

    Despite missing nearly half the season, Caufield led the Canadiens in goals for the second consecutive season, tied with Nick Suzuki.

    Montreal selected Caufield in the first round (15th overall) of the 2019 draft.

    Since making his NHL debut in 2020-21, the forward has 84 points (53 goals, 31 assists) in 123 NHL games.

    Vegas Golden Knights come back to beat Florida Panthers in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS – Back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in five years and trailing the Florida Panthers less than 10 minutes into Game 1, the Vegas Golden Knights sent a very clear message.

    “We were ready,” Jonathan Marchessault said.

    Ready and dominant. Vegas rallied from an early deficit, got the go-ahead goal from Zach Whitecloud with just over 13 minutes left and arguably the best save of the playoffs from Adin Hill and beat Florida 5-2 Saturday night to take the lead in the best-of-seven series.

    “We kept out composure, and it was good,” said Marchessault, one of six original Knights players left from the start of the franchise in 2017 who scored the tying goal in the first period. “We just wanted to play the right way and be disciplined, and tonight we were able to be the better team.”

    Whitecloud put Vegas ahead, a crucial penalty kill followed and captain Mark Stone scored an insurance goal that was reviewed for a high stick and confirmed. Reilly Smith sealed it with an empty-netter to make the score look more lopsided than the game.

    The combination of that offense and Hill’s 33 saves put Vegas up after a feisty opener between Sun Belt teams who wasted little time getting acquainted with big hits during play and plenty of post-whistle pushing and shoving.

    “It’s exactly what we expected,” said Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore, who scored his first goal of the playoffs and ended a 27-game drought dating to March 7. “That’s how they wanted to play. We were just trying not to play into it.”

    That stuff is just beginning. Game 2 is Monday in Las Vegas.

    Before the Panthers even get a chance to respond, they ratcheted up the physical play late after falling behind by two. A handful of penalties resulting from a fracas with 4:24 remaining left the Florida bench well short.

    The outcome was determined long before that.

    After falling behind on a short-handed goal by Eric Staal that sucked the life out of the crowd of 18,432, the Golden Knights rallied for their ninth comeback win this playoffs. Marchessault – known since arriving in Las Vegas for scoring big goals – answered before the end of the first period.

    Early in the second, Hill made a desperation stick save to rob Nick Cousins of what would have been a sure goal. The save was reminiscent of the one Washington’s Braden Holtby made against Vegas – in the same crease – five years ago.

    “That’s an unreal save – it’s a game-changer,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You need those saves at key moments.”

    Giving up a tying goal to Anthony Duclair with 10.2 seconds left in the second did not slow the Golden Knights’ momentum much. Whitecloud’s goal, with two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky screened and unable to see, fired up fans once again.

    Bobrovsky, in the final for the first time, downplayed any reason for concern after stopping 29 of 34 shots and losing for just the second time in 12 games this postseason.

    “I played a good game,” Bobrovsky said. “I played a solid game. They created some good chances other than goals. They had lots of good scoring chances, and that was fun.”

    Part of the fun came when play was stopped.

    Less than 10 minutes in, Hill was none too happy about Nick Cousins crashing into his crease and gave the agitating Panthers winger a jab that incited a handful of scrums. During the second period, Matthew Tkachuk let Vegas’ Nic Hague know he wasn’t thrilled about a hit in the corner on Cousins and a collision with Brandon Montour after the whistle.

    “If guys are going to come in my crease and try to push me around, I’m going to stand my own ground,” Hill said. “I’m not going to do anything too crazy or get too wild, but, yeah, I’ve got to stand up for myself.”

    Florida coach Paul Maurice, back in the final for the first time since 2001, displayed a similarly calm demeanor as he did all the way back in the first round, when his team fell behind 1-0 then 3-1 to NHL-best Boston before winning in seven.

    “It’s going to be tight,” Maurice said. “Everybody breathe.”

    The Golden Knights are in the final for the second time in six years of existence, five years after making it in their inaugural season. Vegas won the opener in 2018 and lost the series to Washington in five games.

    The Panthers are back playing for the Cup for the first time since 1996. Florida got swept by Colorado in that final 27 years ago, 18 months before Tkachuk, the team’s leading scorer this playoffs, was born.

    It’s the 66th different matchup of teams in the Cup final in NHL history and the 46th since the expansion era began in 1967-68. This is the first time since Washington-Vegas and just the third time since the turn of the century in which the final features two teams who have never won the league’s championship.

    Penguins name former Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas as director of hockey operations

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    PITTSBURGH (AP) Kyle Dubas wanted to take a breath and take a break after being fired as the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    Then the Pittsburgh Penguins called.

    The break ended shortly thereafter.

    Dubas joined the Penguins as the team’s president of hockey operations, less than two weeks after a somewhat ugly exit from Toronto following a second-round playoff loss to Florida.

    The 37-year-old Dubas goes from one type of hockey crucible to another. In Toronto, he was tasked with helping the Maple Leafs emerge from two decades of postseason futility. In Pittsburgh, his mission will be to prop open the Stanley Cup window for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang a little longer.

    All three are 35 or older and haven’t won a playoff series since 2018. Yet Dubas believes strongly the issue isn’t the age of the franchise’s core but deficiencies elsewhere on the roster. Dubas replaces Brian Burke, who was fired along with general manager Ron Hextall in April after the Penguins failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

    “I heard a lot of people that were highly skeptical of the team’s ability to contend here and the way I view it, if the people want to bet against (Crosby, Letang and Malkin) they can go ahead and do so,” Dubas said. “But I’m going to bet on them and go with them here. I think it is a group that’s capable of contending to win a championship.”

    Crosby and Malkin were excellent for much of last season and Letang showed remarkable resiliency while dealing with multiple setbacks, including a stroke and the death of his father. Yet save for a 14-2-2 stretch in November and December, the Penguins struggled to find consistency and ultimately stumbled down the stretch to snap the longest active playoff streak in major North American Sports.

    While the Penguins do have $20 million in cap space and the 14th overall pick in this month’s NHL draft, significant changes or upgrades could be difficult in the short term.

    Dubas inherits a team that was the oldest in the NHL last season and is littered with question marks, particularly in goal and the forward group outside of Crosby, Malkin and Jake Guentzel.

    Two-time All-Star goaltender Tristan Jarry will become a free agent this summer and was beset by injuries over the second half of the season. Forward Jason Zucker, who served as the emotional sparkplug for long stretches, is also scheduled to hit the open market and may have priced himself out of town.

    Pittsburgh also has several aging players with full or partial no-movement clauses, including 38-year-old forward Jeff Carter, 30-year-old Bryan Rust and 35-year-old defenseman Jeff Petry.

    “I think that those are obviously very real situations, everyone knows that they exist,” Dubas said. “To me the effect on it … is what we can add in terms of depth pieces? What we can add in terms of younger players? That’ll be the real key.”

    Dubas does plan to hire a general manager to fill the vacancy created when Hextall was let go after a short but largely unfruitful tenure. Dubas will serve as the GM on an interim basis until early July.

    Dubas comes to Pittsburgh after nine seasons with the Maple Leafs, including the last five as general manager. Toronto won a postseason series for the first time since 2004 this spring before falling to the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games.

    Shortly after the Maple Leafs’ playoff exit, Dubas said that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to remain in Toronto. His contract was set to expire on June 30, but team president Kyle Shanahan opted to pre-emptively fire Dubas instead. Toronto hired former Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving as Dubas’ replacement.

    Dubas helped build the Maple Leafs into a regular-season power during his tenure. Toronto set single-season records for wins and points, and went 221-109-42 in his tenure. Dubas also didn’t shy away from big moves – he fired Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Babcock in November 2019 and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe – but struggled to find the right mix in the playoffs until this spring.

    In the end, advancing beyond the first round for the first time since 2004 wasn’t enough for Dubas to remain in Toronto.

    He joked he was maybe a little “too honest” during his season-ending press conference with the Maple Leafs when he expressed reservations about returning. Shanahan’s abrupt decision to move on came as a bit of a surprise, and Dubas planned to take some time to hit the reset button before looking for another job.

    Yet the Penguins – who’d already been given clearance by the Maple Leafs to interview Dubas – provided a compelling reason to speed up the timetable. Dubas’ due diligence included speaking to Crosby and longtime coach Mike Sullivan to take the pulse of a leadership group that remains firmly in place.

    Dubas called them “some of the best competitors” in hockey. Competitors that have – for one reason or another – been unable to recapture the magic of their runs to back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017.

    Time is running out for Crosby to put his name on the Cup for a fourth time in a career that will almost certainly end in the Hall of Fame. Dubas knows he’ll be judged in part on whether he can make that happen. After taking more than six weeks of searching before landing on Dubas, Fenway Sports Group Chairman Tom Werner believes Dubas is up to the challenge.

    “Our philosophy is giving Kyle and his associates the best possible resources to win,” Werner said. “Kyle’s been very articulate today about his path to success … we’re very confident that Kyle will execute the plan he’s articulated to us.”