A quick perusal of the NHL’s top 10 goal-scorers:
Alex Ovechkin (44) is doing his thing with the defending Stanley Cup champs, looking to pass Bobby Hull for sole possession of the record for most times leading the NHL in goals (eight).
Patrick Kane (40) and Alex DeBrincat (36) have keyed a surprising second-half surge for Chicago, which may not be enough to propel the team to a playoff spot but at least has given the franchise unexpected hope.
Brayden Point (36) is transitioning from underrated to elite on the league’s top team.
Jeff Skinner (36) is setting up the best payday of his career, going UFA this July.
John Tavares (36) had to endure one night of hell at the Nassau Coliseum, but his debut Leafs season has been otherwise breezy.
Cam Atkinson (35)? About to set a new career high on a Columbus team that became a trade-deadline buyer and now pulses with energy.
Joe Pavelski (35)? Part of another strong season for a veteran San Jose club. Gabriel Landeskog (33)? Having the best season of his career playing alongside Nathan MacKinnon (33).
There’s a pretty strong correlation between all those goals and at least some semblance of team success, even if it just means battling on the playoff periphery. Each of these snipers has helped his team be relevant in 2018-19.
That’s why it felt so painful to see Leon Draisaitl, whose 39 goals rank third in the NHL, slouched at his dressing room stall after his Edmonton Oilers sustained a 6-2 beatdown at the hands of the Leafs earlier this week. Teammate and 33-goal scorer Connor McDavid’s peerless talent isn’t lost on anyone, but Drasaitl’s phenomenal performance this season feels particularly wasted. His goal-scoring pace, tracking to about 50, is a cup of water tossed into an ocean for an Oilers team seven points out of a Western Conference playoff position.
“I’d rather give up some of my goals to be in a playoff spot,” Draisaitl said Wednesday, wearing a hangdog expression.
It’s felt like the franchise could do no right over the past couple years, with every one of ex-GM Peter Chiarelli’s signings or trades seeming to blow up in his face. Griffin Reinhart. Milan Lucic. Kris Russell. Mikko Koskinen. You name the move and it’s been cursed. Even Jesse Puljujarvi, now shut down for season-ending hip surgery, looks like a disastrous draft pick at fourth overall in 2016 so far.
But it also wouldn’t be fair to say the Oilers have done nothing right aside from the McDavid draft pick. Draisaitl hasn’t merely justified his No. 3 overall draft status from 2014. ‘The German Wayne Gretzky’ is becoming a superstar in his own right before our eyes, already quite a bargain at his $8.5-million AAV. Any idea that he needed to be McDavid’s right winger to succeed feels dated and misguided now.
“He’s such an elite player,” said Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse. “His stats speak for themselves, but if you watch a full game, you see his ability to control the pace of the game. The pace picks up when he wants it to pick up, it slows down when he wants it to slow down, and there are only so many people in this league capable of doing that. “
Draisaitl has played 576:22 with McDavid and 391:55 without him this season at 5-on-5. On the ice with No. 97, Draisaitl rates obviously better in pretty much every per-hour stat we can find: percentage of goals scored by the Oilers versus the other team, high-danger chances generated per 60 minutes and so on. But who cares about that? You or I would be better with McDavid than without. A soggy tuna sandwich would pick up a more points on McDavid’s line than on anyone else’s. The question to ask is whether Draisaitl’s production sans-McDavid is still good, even if it’s not as good.
Draisaitl picks up an incredible 2.81 points per 60 minutes when he’s on the ice with McDavid. Without him: 1.84 points per 60. So where would those numbers rank among the 320 forwards with at least 500 minutes played at 5-on-5 this season?
The 2.81 with McDavid would obviously be elite. Only 14 forwards produce more points per 60. The 1.84 points per 60 at 5-on-5 would put Draisaitl 135th, in the top half of the league’s forwards near such (admittedly cherrypicked to provide perspective) names as Landeskog, Nikolaj Ehlers, Brayden Schenn and Dylan Larkin. That’s pretty solid second-line production considering Draisaitl’s linemates typically include the likes of journeyman Alex Chiasson and zero-goal scorer Tobias Rieder. It’s not that Draisaitl sets the world on fire without McDavid, but producing at roughly a second-line level is a Herculean feat considering Draisaitl rarely gets second-line-caliber wingers flanking him.
So what does it mean? It tells us the Oilers have at least two things going very well for them despite languishing in franchise hell. It means that, if they win a draft-lottery pick, they would have a chance to ice two elite lines (if, say, a Kaapo Kakko ended up with Draisaitl), or maybe even three effective lines (if they land Jack Hughes or another center). It isn’t accurate to perceive the Oilers from a “Poor McDavid” or one-man-team perspective anymore. We should say “Poor Draisaitl,” too. This team has its Sidney Crosby and its Evgeni Malkin. And maybe that means an effective off-season can get things turned around faster than perceived.
Until then, Oiler fans can just enjoy watching the individual stats leaderboards, even if that’s no consolation to the team’s superstar duo.
“I’m confident right now, obviously, and they’ve been going in for me, but it’s not about me,” Draisaitl said. “This is a team sport. I want to win hockey games, and I want to make the playoffs.”