How Connor McDavid's Situation in Edmonton Could Mimic Jack Eichel's in Buffalo

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistMay 25, 2021

Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Listen closely, hockey fans. And you'll hear it.

Particularly the closer you get to Rogers Place in Edmonton.

It's the alarm clock ticking on Ken Holland's desk. Or maybe just in his mind.

Either way, as each day passes this spring—and each hour brings the GM closer to the end of yet another unsatisfying Oilers season—the din from said clock gets louder and louder.

It's the time remaining until the franchise's signature player says enough is enough.

It's already happening in Buffalo, where Jack Eichel is using words like "disconnect" to describe his relationship with the organization and fielding questions about how long he'll be a Sabre.

And make no mistake, it could be coming to northern Alberta, too.

Whether it's via a phone call from agent Jeff Jackson, a headline citing a handful of high-placed "team sources" or an office visit from No. 97 himself, it's the fodder for a 65-year-old's night terrors.

Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

Thanks to a four-game sweep at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets—a team the Oilers beat seven times in nine games this season—the epic sixth year of Connor McDavid's career ended exactly as each of the first five did.

No Stanley Cup hoist. No blissful parade lap. No center-ice team picture.

And, unless you're a full-on franchise apologist, there's no reason to believe any of the above are imminent.

Even though the trophy-flushed McDavid won the Art Ross this year and seems sure to capture the Hart as well. Even though the guy who won both last season, Leon Draisaitl, is also on the team.

And let's not forget that among defensemen, the Oilers boast this season's top point-getter (Tyson Barrie) and the second-highest goal-scorer (Darnell Nurse).

Still, in spite of that obvious top-end talent, the Oilers are a hollowed-out husk of a contender when compared to the deeper Jets. Though McDavid and Draisaitl were the league's highest-scoring forwards in the regular season, Winnipeg had five players with more points than Edmonton's No. 3 producer.   

And in nine games against the Jets from January to April, McDavid had 22 points—the most by a player against a single opponent in 33 years.

In four games in May, he got a more pedestrian four points on 15 shots and was a minus-2 in better than 30 minutes of ice time per game.

Nevertheless, of the Oilers' eight goals in the series, he and Draisaitl had three. Meanwhile, Winnipeg had four players with two apiece and eight more with one. 

It's an awfully inglorious position for a team whose recent history is already dubious.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Lest we forget, the Oilers were ninth in the league and fifth in the Western Conference last summer when positioned opposite the 12th-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the COVID-prompted postseason qualifying round. And four ugly games later, it was the Blackhawks advancing and thereby wasting the MVP season in which Draisaitl scored 110 points in 71 games.

Prior to that, they'd made the playoffs just once—in 2017—since a stirring run to the Stanley Cup Final ended in a Game 7 loss at Carolina 11 years earlier. In fact, outside of that single year with Chris Pronger on the blue line, Edmonton has won exactly seven series since capturing its last championship in 1990.

Ironically, Pronger demanded a trade within days of the loss to the Hurricanes and was gone soon after to Anaheim, where he won a Cup the following season. The Oilers, meanwhile, embarked on a record run of futility, missing the playoffs for 10 straight years before the aforementioned return in 2017.

This week's flameout, however, will leave a scar that'll linger past many others.

Primarily because it wasted an historic season by McDavid, who produced a preposterous 105 points in 56 games—a per-game average of 1.875 that's been bested by six players in the past 50 years.

It's prompted comparisons to the likes of Gretzky, Lemieux and Crosby, the game's most recent generational talents—two of whom (Lemieux and Crosby) were also drafted first overall, while Gretzky arrived as part of the NHL's absorption of four teams from the World Hockey Association.

Like McDavid, each was a teenage superstar on a subpar team.

But unlike McDavid, each had won a title—or was on the verge of one—by this stage.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Crosby was in the Cup Final in his third season and won a title in his fourth, while Gretzky pulled off the same double in the fourth and fifth seasons of his career. Lemieux took slightly longer, reaching the playoffs in his fifth season and missing in the sixth before winning titles in years seven and eight.

The biggest difference? The talent that surrounded them.

The Oilers were remarkably successful through the draft in Gretzky's formative years, adding Hall of Famers Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson in 1979, Paul Coffey and Jari Kurri in 1980 and Grant Fuhr in 1981. Lemieux's Penguins, on the other hand, were built through trades that brought in Coffey, Tom Barrasso, Kevin Stevens and Ron Francis, and a 1990 draft pick that yielded Jaromir Jagr.

As for Crosby, he was preceded in Pittsburgh by goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and joined in year two by Evgeni Malkin, before the final trade pieces arrived in the veteran forms of Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz.

McDavid, meanwhile, is having his fate decided by the likes of Josh Archibald and Mike Smith.

In fairness, Holland inherited a personnel and salary cap mess from Peter Chiarelli.

But it's not as if he hasn't had some chances to change the dynamics since his arrival.

Many labeled him a winner at the 2020 trade deadline for separate deals that netted speedy forwards Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Ennis and defenseman Mike Green.

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But Athanasiou never clicked with McDavid and was released, Green injured his knee in his second game and retired before this season and Ennis broke his leg in Game 3 of the qualifier with Chicago.

This time around, it was more about what he didn't do.

Though secondary scoring was a glaring need and former Edmonton draftee Taylor Hall was available, Holland was apparently unwilling to part with enough to bring the former MVP back—though Boston got him for a second-round pick and a middling prospect and has reaped the rewards of 17 points in 21 games, including a five-game playoff elimination of the Washington Capitals.

Same goes for veteran winger Jeff Carter, a two-time Cup champ who'd been languishing in Los Angeles but has scored 12 goals in 16 post-deadline games (regular and postseason) with the Penguins, including three in four games of a first-round duel with the New York Islanders.

As for Smith, he was a 39-year-old revelation on a one-year deal—posting a .923 save percentage in the regular season, but it's not been so long since he gave up five in 27-plus minutes during last year's qualifying opener and two more in 16 seconds during Winnipeg's dagger-plunging Sunday comeback.

That all followed a goaltender frenzy in the offseason, when eight starters changed teams and a few others took big payouts to avoid such a move.

Holland was reportedly hot and heavy about ex-Vancouver stalwart Jacob Markstrom, but failed to meet the six-year, $36 million number that got him to Calgary instead.

Would Markstrom or someone else have made a Game 3 difference?

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No one knows for sure.

Still, cynics are within reason to suggest that if Holland got Hall, Carter or anyone else on that level who'd been available in April, McDavid's margin for error wouldn't have been so narrow come May.

Full disclosure, the player himself has been a good company man in Edmonton.

McDavid signed a three-year, $11.325 million deal upon arrival in 2015, and extended his stay with an eight-year agreement in 2017 that's worth $100 million and has him locked down for five more seasons.

There have been no outbursts, no petulance and no holdouts. In fact, he's been a model citizen on and off the ice, and showed herculean dedication while recovering from a serious knee injury in 2019.

But like every man has his price, every man, too, has his breaking point.

Another offseason without a deep playoff run—while surrounded by a cadre of hard-working but ham-handed complements—has surely gotten McDavid closer to his.

And unless Holland responds to the ticking, it'll get here sooner than later.