Perhaps we should find comfort in the normality of it, given the angry seas that is this point in human history. Any recognizable port can feel like home right now, anything to lash the ship to feeling like a savior. And that’s as far as I can take my ship/seas metaphors. But here we are, and even in a shortened, mutated NHL season, there’s Connor McDavid tearing a hole in the world... and it’s basically being rendered meaningless.
You may have missed it last night, as late starts from Western Canada don’t usually register on anyone’s priority-watching list. But Connor McDavid racked up five points in an 8-5 Oilers win over Ottawa. And, sure, you’re probably thinking, “Nothing that happens against the Senators, or even for the Senators, or really anything having anything remotely to do with the Senators, counts for real.” You wouldn’t be wrong, though five-point games don’t come around that often, even if it’s against a wiffle-ball team turned hockey franchise (and it’s even rarer when your teammate is piling up a six-point game simultaneously).
But it’s just the latest in another McDavid hot streak. Before beating up on the remedial class, McDavid collected five points in two games against Toronto, the class of the North Division. Before that it was five points in two games against the Jets, who are decidedly “the middle.” That’s fifteen points in the past five games, 17 in the last seven, and for the season he has 22 points in 11 games. Even in a 56-game season, McDavid is on pace to easily top 100 points.
A new wrinkle into McDavid’s admittedly small sample size 2021 season is that his metrics are backing him up. McDavid hasn’t always been a great possession player, or taken a huge share of the scoring chances while on the ice, especially the past couple years. He’s been good by that measure, just not transcendent in the underlying numbers. It generally doesn’t matter, because even if McDavid is creating an equal amount of attempts and chances that he’s giving up while on the ice, he’s going to score far more of them because he’s just that good.
This year, that’s different. McDavid is carrying a 56 percent share of attempts while on the ice, and a 64 percent share of the expected-goals. Stretched over a full season, both would be career-highs by huge margins. Not only that, but both figures are a space-station distance above his team’s overall mark, where in the past he was usually around the team average or slightly above it. The Oilers are simply galactically better when McDavid is on the ice, more so than they’ve ever been (and he’s done all this mostly playing with dumber and slower boat anchor Zack Kassian, which basically means McDavid should be handed the next five MVP awards now).
And as always, none of it really matters. Other than the spectacle of it.
The Oilers sit fifth in the North, at 5-6-0. Technically, they’re tied for the last playoff spot with the Jets. But when four out of seven possible teams will make the postseason, it’s not much of an accomplishment. And when you’re tied with Winnipeg for anything, you’re in a place you need to leave (especially if you’re tied in number of airports, because then it means you don’t have one and you can’t easily leave the bad place you’re in).
And it’s the same problem it’s always been. The goalies find all sorts of ways to Matrix around pucks instead of stop them, and the defense is cardboard. Mikko Koskinen has a SV percent of .895, and has played every game save one because veteran Mike Smith is...somewhere? He’s on long-term injured reserve, though they haven’t really said why. But if you miss Mike Smith, then you’ve been truly bereft/hurt in life.
While Ethan Bear and Darnell Nurse on the top defensive pairing have been very good, everything beneath them on the roster has been nothing short of a disaster. Tyson Barrie apparently broke in Toronto last season (he’d hardly be the first), going from a dependable and sometimes exciting puck-mover in Colorado to this pile of goo. Kris Russell, Adam Larsson, Slater Koekkoek have served up exactly what you’d think when you read those names, except it smells funnier.
Given the set-up of the season, the Oilers have a decent chance of sneaking into the postseason and with McDavid and Leon Draisailt, they could tell themselves they have a puncher’s chance against anyone in the North. But last season ended before they could spit away their playoff spot, and they still found a way to lose to the sad-sack Blackhawks in four games before getting into the main draw in the NHL’s play-in round. That’s the more likely outcome.
Before the season, there were some light whispers that McDavid is growing impatient with wasting his time in Edmonton. Nothing from McDavid or his camp, of course, and just an anonymous other agent saying it. The league itself should probably be getting impatient. If David Stern were running things, McDavid would have been shifted to L.A., New York, Miami, or really anywhere else years ago.
Until then, we continue to watch the modern retelling of Sisyphus.