The Hart Trophy goes to the player judged more valuable to his team than anyone else in the sport, and it will likely go to Connor McDavid in June. The MVP race should come down to McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Erik Karlsson. Crosby remains the world’s best player but has the benefit of other high-impact stars on his team. Karlsson might well be the player most valuable to his team right now but, remember, his otherworldly performance in the Stanley Cup playoffs won’t factor into the voting, which closed just before Round 1 commenced.
McDavid combines the best of Crosby and Karlsson in that McDavid is on the shortlist for world’s best player and player most valuable to his team. As a voter and someone exposed to many other voters, an opinion I’ve commonly heard on McDavid is that he was the Edmonton Oilers this season, that they wouldn’t have sniffed the playoffs without him, that the Oilers join the Ottawa Senators as the closest “good” teams to being one-man operations.
And while it’s true McDavid has a gargantuan impact on the Oilers – just look at how he elevates team possession and, most notably, hard-hat linemate Patrick Maroon – the Stanley Cup playoffs thus far suggest the Oilers as a team don’t get enough credit.
McDavid led the NHL in scoring as the only player to reach 100 points this season. He’s the most dynamic offensive force in the game. He also has just five points in his first seven career playoff games. As expected, he drew a matchup in Game 1 of the second round against the Anaheim Ducks’ dynamite shutdown line of Ryan Kesler between Andrew Cogliano and Jakob Silfverberg. Kesler, one of this year’s leading Selke Trophy candidates, played 11-plus minutes against McDavid, and the lockdown defensive tandem of Josh Manson and Hampus Lindholm was assigned to containing McDavid, Maroon and Leon Draisaitl as well.
McDavid certainly wasn’t erased in Game 1, making some key plays to set up multiple goals, but he didn’t do anything close to dominating this game. The Oilers needed more than him to prevail, and that’s exactly what they got.
Blueliner Adam Larsson exploded for a pair of goals and three points. Draisaitl was possessed, setting up three goals and adding an empty netter in Edmonton’s 5-3 victory. And these weren’t fluke performances. Fernando Pisani they ain’t. These guys have pedigree. Larsson was the No. 4 overall pick in the 2011 draft, blessed with a big frame built for logging long, heavy minutes. The New Jersey Devils rushed him to the NHL and messed with his development – something then-GM Lou Lamoriello later told me he regretted.
“When things are going good (in the NHL), you don’t have a chance to fail and then recover without everybody seeing it or it costing you a game,” Lamoriello told me in 2015. “Whereas in the minors, when you go through the growing process, you can learn, because everybody knows it’s a development team, and you’re going through these mistakes, and you have to live with them.”
Larsson ended up logging 67 AHL games across three seasons after his rookie NHL campaign and took several years to become an impact NHLer. We should set aside the ludicrous idea that Larsson’s strong play makes him better than Taylor Hall – it has nothing to do with Hall, who remains the superior all-around player – but the fact remains Larsson has worked out decently for the Oilers and GM Peter Chiarelli, who acquired him straight up for Hall in one of the most shocking trades in recent memory. Larsson will never be worth Hall, but Larsson was always supposed to be good. And the operative word is “good,” not great. Larsson was second among the Oilers defensemen in quality of competition this season, defined in this case as average Corsi For percentage of opponents. He led the team in hits and finished second in blocks. He was a good, sold defenseman, albeit not a world beater.
Larsson has the all-around ability to make contributions like he did in Game 1, and he’s not alone. Draisaitl gets overshadowed by McDavid but was a tremendous prospect in his own right coming up with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders, dubbed ‘The German Wayne Gretzky.’ Of course McDavid makes him better – superstars do that – but Draisaitl is an impact scorer as well. He went third overall in the 2014 draft for a reason.
And the list of key Edmonton contributors continues to grow in these playoffs. Zack Kassian has two game winning goals. Defenseman Darnell Nurse, drafted seventh overall in by the Oilers in 2013, has been effective in relatively limited minutes, using his massive frame and physicality. Oscar Klefbom, another prospect seemingly in the Oilers’ system forever, has broken out this season, particularly down the stretch and into these playoffs. He’s looking more and more like a true top-pairing guy every day. The Milan Lucic signing has worked out decently so far, as the hulking left winger got hot late in the year and has combined with Kassian and Maroon to give Edmonton a truly intimidating forecheck.
And, of course, we can’t forget about goaltender Cam Talbot. The peripheral numbers in his New York Rangers days suggested he was always legit, and Chiarelli’s trade, struck on draft day 2015, looks better every day. Talbot started slowly in 2015-16 but had a strong second half, and he was one of the NHL’s best goalies this season. He was good enough to earn one of my three end-of-season all-star votes along with Sergei Bobrovsky and Braden Holtby. Talbot led the NHL in games and shots faced and, among goalies with 1,000 or more minutes of 5-on-5 play, rated tops in the NHL in medium-danger save percentage. That’s an impressive feat given he had the league’s biggest sample size.
When you look at all the different pieces, some assembled by Chiarelli, some drafted before he arrived, the sum of Edmonton’s parts suddenly starts to look pretty decent, with or without McDavid. That’s great news for this franchise, and Game 1 against Anaheim provides the perfect case study. The Ducks did a good job containing No. 97, and the Oilers’ supporting cast did enough to win the game anyway.
McDavid remains infinitely valuable to his team. He’s the No. 1 reason the Oilers are Stanley Cup contenders and leading a series on the road against a first-place opponent that hadn’t lost in regulation since March 10. But McDavid is not the only reason. Chiarelli has himself a real hockey team. That makes the Oilers far more dangerous than some believe them to be.
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