Arguably the most important stretch for any team in the playoff picture is the few weeks leading up to the trade deadline. It’s those few weeks that often determine whether a team will buy or whether they’re destined to be sellers. It’s those few weeks where crucial points can either be made up or dropped, never to be recovered. And it’s those few weeks when teams can either fall completely apart or become galvanized before making that all-important push into the post-season.
So, suffice to say that given we're three weeks out from the deadline, there could not have possibly been a worse moment for the Edmonton Oilers to learn that they’ll be without Connor McDavid, the most game-changing offensive force in the entire NHL, for that very stretch.
Speaking to media Tuesday afternoon, Oilers GM Ken Holland announced that McDavid, who suffered a lower-body injury in Saturday’s victory over the Nashville Predators, will miss anywhere from two to three weeks with a quad ailment. Holland added that the injury, which is unrelated to the knee injury McDavid suffered at the end of last season, was revealed by an MRI, and that the hope within the Oilers’ organization is that the captain’s timeline for recovery can actually be a touch faster than the initial prognosis.
Without question, this is a potentially season-altering injury with which the Oilers will have to contend, and the timeline is worrisome, to say the least. On the low end, McDavid will miss anywhere from seven to eight games if he’s out of action exactly two weeks from Tuesday’s announcement. If it’s three weeks, the number stretches to the dozen-game mark. McDavid could miss the equivalent of about 15 percent of the campaign. And that his time on the sideline is coming with the trade freeze in the offing – Holland said “yes and no” when asked if McDavid’s injury impacts deadline plans, with the win-loss record the true deciding factor – means Edmonton’s pre- and possibly post-deadline future will be determined in the absence of their most important player.
That doesn’t mean all hope is lost, however, if for no other reason than the presence of Leon Draisaitl, who has the chance to show once and for all that he can be the one to put the Oilers on his back in a time of need.
Draisaitl, of course, isn’t some also-ran, sneaky-good scorer not known the league over. He’s a star in his own right, the league’s leading scorer and among the NHL’s most prolific offensive players over the past few seasons. Only McDavid, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov and Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon have more points than Draisaitl since the start of the 2017-18 campaign, and though it’s McDavid who was the Hart Trophy frontrunner at mid-season, it’s Draisaitl who enters this pivotal time in Edmonton’s season leading the pack in the Art Ross Trophy race. His 85 points put him four clear of McDavid, seven ahead of the Boston Bruins’ David Pastrnak and nine up on MacKinnon. No other player is within 10 points of Draisaitl.
There is, however, an assertion from those who only watch the Oilers from a distance that Draisaitl is largely a product of McDavid. That is a certain brand of nonsense.
Have the two spent time together this campaign? Undeniably. Draisaitl’s most common linemate this season has been McDavid, the Oilers’ two-headed monster spending more than 800 minutes alongside one another at all strengths. But the inclusion of power play minutes and overtime ice time skews the numbers, and the silver lining – though there’s some hesitation calling it that – is that Oilers coach Dave Tippett has been splitting McDavid and Draisaitl. For the better part of the past two months, the two have been what Edmonton believed they could be: a one-two punch more akin to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin than Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. Put another way, they’re standing on their own two feet as a pair of line-centering pivots, not two towers of power on one superhuman line.
To wit, through the first 29 games of the Oilers season, McDavid and Draisaitl spent 410 minutes at each other’s side at 5-on-5, the latter only spending 51 five-a-side minutes without the former. But since Dec. 1, when the decision to split the two was beginning to take root, Draisaitl has played 297 minutes at 5-on-5 without McDavid and 127 alongside the Oilers superstar. Furthermore, over the past 15 games, the separation has become all the more defined: 207 minutes without McDavid and 30 with McDavid for Draisaitl. And that might be just what he needed to prepare for a moment when the spotlight on No. 29 will be shining brighter than ever before.
In fact, here’s the part where we suggest that the Oilers might be able to navigate this period without falling apart completely. Though there’s something to be said for McDavid’s line drawing attention away from any other unit, which might in turn open up some extra ice or afford the second line the opportunity to skate out against weaker defensive opposition, Draisaitl’s 5-on-5 on-ice numbers are worth noting. Since coming back from the holiday break, Draisaitl has a 51.1 Corsi percentage, 55.5 shots percentage, 52.6 expected goals percentage and whopping 66.7 goals percentage at five-a-side when playing without McDavid. The cherry on top? Draisaitl is managing those numbers despite taking more than half of his faceoffs in the defensive zone.
It should be said, too, that Draisaitl has proven over this time that he can produce even when he’s not on McDavid’s hip. During the opening two months when the Oilers’ big guns were almost inseparable, Draisaitl scored 48 points in 28 games, 1.71 points per game. And while his rate has admittedly dropped in the time since, Draisaitl has maintained a rate of scoring of 1.37 points per game since Dec. 1 (37 points in 27 games) and has 1.60 points per game since Dec. 25 (24 points in 15 games) since the separation became its most distinct.
So, while true that the Oilers attack will be weakened without McDavid, that Edmonton has a security blanket in the shape of Draisaitl gives reason to believe, even if with the most cautious levels of optimism, they can make it out the other side with their post-season hopes intact. And that’s all the Oilers can really do right now: hope and believe that Draisaitl can do what’s necessary to keep the playoff dream alive. No pressure.
Want more in-depth features and analysis? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.