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

Edmonton Oilers Connor McDavid Leon Draisaitl
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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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    Former B’s coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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    BOSTON – The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games on Monday night.

    The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

    Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

    In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

    They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

    Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

    Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

    Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

    “Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

    Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

    “This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

    The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

    Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

    “This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

    Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

    Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

    Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

    “We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

    Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

    TRIBUTE

    The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

    The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

    “It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

    FOR THE RECORD

    Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

    EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

    The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

    UP NEXT

    Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers on Wednesday.

    Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday.

    Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

    kris letang
    Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

    Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

    There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

    While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

    Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

    Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

    “It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

    Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

    The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

    “I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

    It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

    “This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

    Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

    Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

    “The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

    Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

    “We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

    Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

    Kris Letang Penguins
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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”