Maybe it’s about Connor Hellebuyck, not Connor McDavid

When Connor McDavid isn’t the best Connor on the ice, the Oilers have a big problem.
When Connor McDavid isn’t the best Connor on the ice, the Oilers have a big problem.
Image: Getty Images

The reflex is to point and laugh at the Edmonton Oilers once again. It’s combined with frustration that the game’s best player is leashed to such a clown car of an organization, one of the most brilliant individual seasons going completely to waste. And if you’re a long-term hockey writer or analyst who spends your off-hours getting beaten about the head or huffing white-out, apparently it’s topped off with finding ways to blame McDavid and suggest that the Oilers need more Zack Kassian than generationally talented players like McDavid or Leon Draisaitl. Like this dweeb. It’s a familiar cycle.

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Being knocked out in a sweep is so violently quick and surprising, no matter who it happens to generally. Because this is playoff hockey, where even truly outmatched teams get at least one great goalie performance or some weird deflection off the boards or a ref on MDMA and are just handed seven power plays. You can’t help but try to identify the rotting foundation of a team that gets swatted aside so aggressively. Nothing makes a fanbase or organization feel so far away.

And don’t get me wrong, there is something rotten in the Oilers foundation. Has been since before McDavid even arrived. But maybe this time around…... they just happened to have the second-best Connor on the ice?

Whatever analytic or measuring stick or numbers you want to look at for these four games that the Jets won, there’s one in bold and underlined and in much bigger font size. That’s Connor Hellebuyck’s .950 save-percentage. .950. That’s otherworldly, even over four games.

Because below that, the Oilers did just about everything right. They had a majority of the attempts in all four games. They dominated when it came to expected goals, at least at even-strength, piling up 11.4 expected goals at 5-on-5 over the four games to just 7.74. Overall it was 14.9-11.4.

And Hellebuyck stopped 151 of the Oilers 159 shots. According to MoneyPuck.com, Hellebuyck saved the most goals above expected in the playoffs so far, and he’s done it in fewer games than anyone by a full two goals. There isn’t much accounting for that.

The argument will be that players like McDavid and Draisaitl should find their way past any goalie, given how they’ve run over everyone in regular seasons past. But that gives Hellebuyck the short-shrift, because in the goalie world, he’s as good as it gets. It feels like forever ago, but this is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. Over the past four years he has the fourth-best save-percentage in the league. His .917 career save-percentage ranks 19th all-time right now, and he’s only 28. He’s probably not done claiming Vezinas. And his mere presence next year in Beijing just might make the U.S. Team equal with Canada when it comes to favorites in the Olympics (while everyone north of the 49th begins hurling their Puppers in my general direction, keep in mind their options in net at the moment are a very-aging Carey Price and Jordan Binnington. Also, Shea Weber and Alex Pietrangelo might still make the team. So in the words of Diego Maradona, suck it and keep sucking it)?

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That doesn’t mean the Oilers didn’t point the gun at their face a few times in this series as well, at every level. Coach Dave Tippett matched McDavid up with the Jets’ top center Mark Scheifele in Game 1, which went well. It’s just that the Oilers don’t have anyone else to score if McDavid and Draisaitl don’t. Then Tippett decided to try and free up McDavid...by matching him up with Adam Lowry, who is one of the better checking centers in the game. The Oilers didn’t score at all.

Tippett then basically spent all of Game 4 flipping off his GM, Ken Holland, because his game plan was perfectly clear - “There are only six guys on this team I’m confident can maintain oxygen intake for the length of this game, so I’m going to only play them!” In a game the Oilers had to win, McDavid, Draisaitl, Darnell Nurse, Tyson Barrie, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Kailer Yamamoto, and Adam Larsson all played north of 35 minutes. No one else had more than 30 other than Larsson’s partner, Kris Russell. Eight of the 18 skaters didn’t even see 25 minutes, in a game that lasted 106 minutes.

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The Oilers trusted Mike Smith once again, a goalie who couldn’t even keep out the decidedly remedial class Blackhawks last spring to the point he was replaced. Smith wasn’t horrible in this series (.912 save-percentage), but gave up goals when the Oilers just couldn’t have them. And his response to them was to get even more Wild Bill Hickcock with his puck handling, convinced he had become Paul Coffey.

Oh, and if Zack Kassian weren’t a mildly-shaved wildebeest, the Oilers would have won that game 6-3 considering the chances he biffed.

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But at the end of the day, few teams are going to have an answer to a .950 save-percentage being thrown at them. The OIlers need an overhaul, and maybe McDavid needs to just ask out so he can play somewhere where meaningful things will happen. But this is the NHL, and sometimes the other guy in the mask decides you aren’t going to win. 

We can't be too careful. Two guys in an airport...talking? It's a little fishy.