Can Connor McDavid Be The Difference Maker For The Edmonton Oilers?

It felt like an injustice when the Edmonton Oilers lucked out in the NHL’s Draft Lottery winning the first overall pick despite having a better record than both the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes. That means that this June, the Oilers will get their fourth 1st overall pick in the last six years. They haven’t got a huge amount to show for it coming off a season where they won just 24 games and failed to score 200 goals while conceding nearly 300.

It appears that Connor McDavid will be the latest player to be given the task of trying to ‘save’ an Oilers’ team that has been mired in a spell of mediocrity unfitting for a franchise with such a tremendous history and championship pedigree.  

Almost every season there is a forward in the draft who is predicted to be the league’s next superstar. These same Oilers grabbed three of the most recent examples all first overall – meet Taylor Hall (2010), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Nail Yakupov (2012). You can throw in Jordan Eberle as another top 10 potential superstar forward as well.

None of those four players have been able to establish themselves in the way that they were expected. Hall’s talent and ability is unquestionable, but injuries have been a factor throughout his NHL career and he managed just 38 points in 53 games in 2014-15 after a career best 80 points last year.

After a promising rookie campaign, Nugent-Hopkins has struggled to ‘break out’ scoring only 56 points in each of his last two seasons. Eberle has arguably been the most successful with consecutive 60+ point seasons, but there’s still the feeling that he has a little more to give. Yakupov has been the most disappointing of all struggling to play well enough to even secure a regular shift on the team’s top two lines.

McDavid is being highlighted as something quite different. Wayne Gretzky has made comparisons to himself and Mario Lemieux, many have suggested that McDavid is one step ahead of Sidney Crosby at a comparable stage of development.

There’s no questioning the fact that McDavid has elite offensive skills, but then again, the same could be said for Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle and Yakupov. Of course, few players are highlighted as strongly as unanimously as McDavid was at the age of 15.

McDavid’s hype is even greater and living up to those expectations will not be easy. There are a couple of problems with the comparisons between McDavid and the likes of Crosby.

The first is one of the state of play in the NHL. It took Steven Stamkos and John Tavares a couple of seasons to truly establish themselves as elite players and that’s in part because the nature of the NHL has changed since Crosby and Alex Ovechkin entered the league in 2005-06. It has tightened up again, teams play better defense and there’s a respect and attention paid to young skillful players that perhaps wasn’t applied in 2005-06 (or was officiated against). It has even arguably impacted Crosby and Ovechkin’s numbers. The method is simple, be physical, put a body on players and use an effective system and positioning to slow teams down. The defensive adaptations have reduced scoring since the first two or three post-lockout seasons.

The second problem is the failure for analysts and writers to appreciate the development step that Crosby took once he entered the NHL. His personality, style of play and leadership abilities all developed at a remarkable pace in those first couple of NHL seasons. The raw offensive talent was always there, but the Stanley Cup winning captain was made in the NHL. There are undoubtedly plenty of players and coaching staff members who deserve credit for that transformation.

It’s difficult to predict how McDavid’s development will play out. There’s no shame in not being the next Crosby. If it takes two or three seasons to reach ‘superstar’ status as it did for Tavares, then there’s no shame in that either.

The Tavares example is also relevant from the perspective of the importance of being put in a position to succeed. The New York Islanders have built their roster around their young forward and the benefits of that have begun to pay off, most notably in 2014-15 when the team from Long Island returned to the postseason and took the Washington Capitals to a Game 7 in the first round.

The future looks bright for the Islanders and Tavares is at the core of that. However, the work of GM Garth Snow and head coach Jack Capuano to build an effective group around him has been just as crucial.

Creating balance and depth has been a problem for Edmonton during their period of mediocrity. They’ve not drafted well outside of the first round, they haven’t built an effective bottom six, the team’s blue line has been weak and they haven’t found a good solution in net. A lot of those issues are interlinked creating a self-fulfilling cycle.

It’ll be the first task for new GM and head coach tandem Peter Chiarelli and Todd McLellan. It’s an experienced NHL tandem, each having established franchises that enjoyed success for sustained period.

Chiarelli will know that McDavid isn’t a quick fix. McLellan’s experience with San Jose also serves as an example of where having a leading cast of superstar players doesn’t guarantee Stanley Cup success – though Edmonton would happily swap their recent history with that of the Sharks.

Reversing the recent period of Oilers’ failure is probably just as much about re-configuring a roster built around the current crop of star forwards, as it is about hoping that McDavid will step in and be an immediate impact player.

Chiarelli’s challenge isn’t an easy one. He will almost certainly need to trade one of Yakupov, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle or Hall. All four have the potential to turn into elite offensive players and trading any one of them could have the potential to look like a poor deal in the future. Chiarelli already has some recent history with that when he traded Tyler Seguin to Dallas two years ago.

McDavid could have ended up in far worse situations. He is in a true hockey town, he is on a roster that has plenty of talent and he is joining a franchise that has the opportunity to turn a corner.


For the Oilers, selecting McDavid will be the easy part of the difficult offseason that lies ahead for Chiarelli, McLellan and their new team.