Long-suffering Edmonton Oiler fans will finally get a chance to see Connor McDavid in person in a real game that means something when the Oilers host the St. Louis Blues Thursday night. It will also give coach Todd McLellan a chance to get McDavid away from the likes of David Backes and perhaps have him experience some success in the faceoff circle.
There is no denying that McDavid has a stunning array of talents. Taking faceoffs at the NHL level is not one of them, at least not at the moment. After three games, McDavid is getting eaten alive in the faceoff circle, winning going just 8-for-33 in the dot for a 24.2 winning percentage. Of the 119 players who have taken at least 20 faceoffs so far this season, McDavid is dead last. The only player within shouting distance of him is fellow rookie Mattias Janmark of the Dallas Stars, who has won 29.6 percent of his draws.
Compare that to Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres, who has won 16 faceoffs and lost 20 for a 44.4 percent success rate and things don’t look so good for McDavid.
But there are some extenuating circumstances here. First of all, Eichel played his first three games at home, where coach Dan Bylsma had a better chance of getting better matchups for his rookie center. In the first game of the season against the Ottawa Senators, Eichel took six of his 12 faceoffs that night against Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who is the Senators third-line center. Eichel won three and lost three against Pageau that night.
McDavid, by contrast, played his first-ever game against the St. Louis Blues on the road. He took 13 draws that game, seven of them against Backes, one of the beasts of the Western Conference. He lost all but one of them that night. Two more came against Paul Stastny, meaning nine of McDavid’s 12 faceoffs that night came against the top two lines on what is supposed to be one of the best teams in the Western Conference.
McDavid didn’t fare much better in his second game, going 2-for-11, including going 0-for-4 against Cody Hodgson and 0-for-3 against Mike Fisher. Even though Hodgson historically has not been strong on faceoffs, it looks as though he’s intent on reinventing himself in Nashville as a third-line shutdown guy. McDavid had a little more success in Dallas, going 3-for-9, but was a combined 1-for-7 against Jason Spezza and Tyler Seguin, meaning eight of his 12 faceoffs were against Dallas’s top two lines.
Eichel, meanwhile, has had it a little easier. He won five of 12 faceoffs in the Sabres second game of the season, but was taken to school in the dot by Tyler Johnson of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who won five of the six draws he took against Eichel. In Game 3 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Eichel again had a decent night, winning five of 12 faceoffs, including taking three of five against Ryan Johansen.
Of the two players, though, McDavid faces a far greater challenge in the faceoff circle. The Oilers are not a terribly strong faceoff team to begin with and having to rely on an 18-year-old in the faceoff circle is a pretty good recipe for losing the puck possession game. When you look at the top centers in the west – Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, Anze Kopitar, Backes, Joe Thornton – the importance of matching up against those big centers is far more important and difficult to accomplish.
In the faceoff circle right now, McDavid is looking very much like an 18-year-old kid who’s finding his way. And that’s pretty typical. Most rookies struggle with faceoffs, particularly in their first time through the league. Sidney Crosby was not terribly good on the draw as a rookie, but has worked at that aspect of his game to get it to the point where it is certainly no longer a detriment.
And that’s what the great ones do. Some players constantly work at things they’ve already mastered. But the great ones such as Crosby and McDavid, set themselves apart because they concentrate on shoring up the weaknesses in their games. It won’t be a short process and McDavid and the Oilers may have to go through a lot of pain this season, but by all accounts, McDavid is committed enough to fill that void in his game. His lessons will come against the biggest and best centers in the world and while the early results may not be terribly encouraging, he and the Oilers will be better for it in the long run.