Edmonton Oilers Have No Easy Fix to Salvage Connor McDavid's Prime Years

Abbey MastraccoJanuary 7, 2022

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 03:  Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers looks on during the National anthems prior to the game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on January 3, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)
Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

Connor McDavid was once compared to Wayne Gretzky. It was a fitting comparison in 2015 when the elite center was selected first overall by the Edmonton Oilers, the team that produced The Great One, arguably the only center more elite than him. 

McDavid was supposed to be the club's savior, the player who would help the perennial losers return to their championship ways. 

But a better comparison these days might be to Mike Trout. The Los Angeles Angels outfielder has only one playoff appearance to his name, a three-game sweep at the hands of the Kansas City Royals in 2014. While McDavid does have a few more postseason appearances than that, the Oilers' dysfunction has effectively hamstrung the club and wasted years of the world's best player in his prime.

McDavid wasn't on the ice Wednesday night in Toronto at Scotiabank Center as Edmonton lost 3-2 to the Toronto Maple Leafs because of a positive COVID-19 test, but he didn't really need to be. It was clear the team can't win without him, but maybe more importantly it showed that the Oilers don't have a strong enough supporting cast around McDavid and second-line center Leon Draisaitl. 

The loss bumped the Oilers to fourth place in the Pacific Division, which is much more competitive one than many anticipated it being, meaning wild-card spots could be difficult to grab.

McDavid and Draisaitl both lead the league with 53 points, and Draisaitl's 26 goals are also No. 1 in the NHL. They are playing huge minutes because they have to, leading all NHL forwards in ice time per game.

But the Oilers are 2-6-2 in their last 10 games. Since Dec. 1, they're 2-9-2 and the only two wins have come with coach Dave Tippett away from the bench in COVID protocol, which naturally has renewed calls for the coach to be fired and replaced with Mike Babcock.

The Oilers are in very real danger of missing the postseason, which shouldn't happen when you have those two players. 

Tippett has publicly sparred with goalie Mikko Koskinen, and Koskinen fired right back

One of the team's biggest issues is goaltending. A .901 save percentage by Koskinen, 39-year-old Mike Smith and Stuart Skinner isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of the team's backstopping.

Koskinen's minus-6.49 goals saved above average is the third-worst mark in the league, per NaturalStatTrick.com. Smith kicked in a goal Wednesday night, and a double deflection for the Maple Leafs' second goal at the end of the first period to surrender the lead was very on-brand for this incarnation of the Oilers. 

But even beyond that, it's clear the Edmonton skaters are not generating offense beyond McDavid and Draisaitl. This chart by Corey Sznajder illustrates that, and as Sznajder pointed out, this chart has continually looked like this year after year. 

Poor roster construction has yet again been exposed. General manager Ken Holland simply has not surrounded McDavid and Draisaitl with enough talent, which places the majority workload on those two alone. 

Tippett is the third head coach the Oilers have employed since McDavid was drafted and the seventh since the 2010-11 season. Holland is the fourth general manager since 2008. Maybe the fifth if you count interim GM Keith Gretzky, who was on the job for almost five months after Peter Chiarelli was fired in January of 2019. 

The Oilers have long had a reputation for mismanagement and missed opportunities. They've won only a single playoff series since reaching the 2006 Stanley Cup Final. They've had more wins in the NHL Draft Lottery, winning four times in six years, including three years in a row from 2010 to 2012. 

There has always been cautious optimism over the last decade. But all of those first-round picks haven't amounted to much in the win category. 

The very foundation of the team was shaken when the Oilers dealt Taylor Hall just one year after drafting McDavid. A year later they traded Jordan Eberle, the 22nd overall pick in 2008. Top draft picks like Nail Yakupov failed to live up to their projections. There were bad deals, like when Peter Chiarelli signed Milan Lucic to a seven-year, $42 million contract.

And though Holland was able to get rid of that albatross of a contract, he's made plenty of mistakes too. 

Holland is a well-respected veteran who spent 22 years as the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, where he helped put together four Stanley Cup-winning teams and transformed the Wings into a perennial powerhouse. But he hasn't shown a particularly adept eye for talent since leaving Detroit.

Last summer, the 66-year-old decided to stand pat on the goaltending tandem. He re-signed Smith through his age-41 season, banking on Koskinen to emerge as a true No. 1. But that emergence has not occurred. 

Zach Hyman has been a nice addition to McDraisaitl but the rest of the offseason moves amounted to little more than an expensive, mediocre blueline. 

The market for defensemen blew up over the summer, and the Oilers were right in the middle of the action they extended Darnell Nurse and Tyson Barrie. They traded for a 38-year-old Duncan Keith and signed Cody Ceci to a four-year deal at $3.25 million AAV. 

That's a lot of money and term for a bottom-pairing blueliner like Ceci, and it's a lot of salary cap dedicated to a defense corps that isn't doing a whole lot of defending and is struggling to get the puck to the forwards. And there is little forward depth to begin with. 

So, how can the Oilers get out of this mess? 

Some might not like this answer, but firing Tippett and bringing in Babcock isn't the solution, at least not right now. This is on Holland to fix by bringing in players who can make plays and generate offense. 

And the bad news is that Holland doesn't have much cap space to work with. There is no wiggle room. The Oilers don't have the money to fix the goaltending, the defense and get a top-six winger at the trade deadline, but Holland can start to address these issues with some sensible trades. 

If he can convince the Chicago Blackhawks to retain salary for goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, then maybe Edmonton can get back in the Pacific Division race. But goaltending alone won't save the Oilers. This team isn't close to contending the way it's set up now and for the next few years. 

So once again, the focus will have to shift to the offseason. Salary will need to be dumped in order to be able to bring in play-drivers and a goaltender. The Oilers should look to hang on to young defensemen like Evan Bouchard, but if they can somehow get Jakob Chychrun out of Arizona (and convince the Coyotes to retain salary) then they can make some progress. 

Where does this leave McDavid? The 24-year-old face of the franchise is signed through 2025-26. His no-movement clause doesn't kick in until next season, per CapFriendly.com. Would anyone be shocked if he asked for a trade? His salary might be hard to move ($12.5 million AAV) and Edmonton could play hardball, much like the Buffalo Sabres did with the player taken after McDavid in the 2015 draft, Jack Eichel. But there is not a team in the league that wouldn't want McDavid. 

However, McDavid has given no indication that he does not want to play in Edmonton. While there has been speculation, there have been no credible rumors to this point. Trading McDavid would be the nuclear option and probably wouldn't happen unless he requested it, or he indicates he will not extend his contract in Edmonton ahead of the negotiating window, which he's still a few years away from.

Much like Trout, McDavid seems committed to the team that drafted him. And much like the Angels, the Oilers will continue to like their chances each season that they slot McDavid into the lineup.

However, with the money the team has committed to ineffective players and the lack of high-end talent coming through the pipeline, the team's path to championship contention is murky at best.