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It's Lonely Up There in Edmonton

February 5, 2019, 9:49 AM ET [5 Comments]
Jay Greenberg
Blogger •NHL Hall of Fame writer • RSSArchiveCONTACT
If it is any consolation to Connor McDavid, it took Mario Lemieux five years to make the playoffs for the first time. Turned out, playing with Ville Siren didn’t kill Mario, only made him that much stronger on the way to two Stanley Cups. So perhaps having Ty Rattie on your right wing builds character. That’s one way for McDavid to look at it.

Lemieux had 100 points in his first NHL season, 1984-85, still was considered an underachiever until the 1987 Canada Cup. Even though after that he picked up his play another 20 per cent, the Penguins still weren’t a playoff team in the 1987-88 season. After that came Paul Coffey, then Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson, Jaromir Jagr, Tom Barrasso, Kevin Stevens, Joe Mullen and consecutive Stanley Cups.

B.J. MacDonald scored 46 goals as Wayne Gretzky’s first NHL right wing, but still you could measure the improvement in Edmonton year-to-year by how far MacDonald dropped on the depth chart. Bobby Orr’s first Bruins’ team won 17 games and Joe Sakic never saw the playoffs in his first six seasons and ended up winning it all twice, just like Orr.

These things take time. So why is the most dynamic player in the game an object of pity; or is a pity for the game that McDavid’s team either will miss the playoffs or be a quick out when we all will want to watch him? And who is responsible for casting hockey’s Al Pacino in a movie with scant supporting roles, only more extras than Ben Hur?

Peter Chiarelli? The miscalculations go back farther than Taylor Hall-for-Adam Larsson with trades blown, high draft picks misspent, cap room squandered. Then again, if the Oilers, who have made the playoffs only once since their surprise run to the 2006 final, had been building steadily, they wouldn’t have gotten the first pick in the 2015 draft and wouldn’t have McDavid.

The fact that there are only about five players on the rest of the squad with which you can build a contender follows from all the Edmonton mishaps, putting the franchise in historically symmetrical position to get the most anticipated draft prospect since Sidney Crosby.

And make no mistake: This is a cosmos-aligned, right time-and-place, once-in-a-generation delivery to the ancestral home of Gretzky. Despite the absence of surrounding parts, that part feels exceedingly right. If McDavid is not yet the best player in the NHL ahead of Crosby, No. 97 will be soon enough.

Meanwhile, there is an even bigger picture. We go back to 1967-68 watching the NHL and to 1974-75 in covering it and, in our wizened view, McDavid is already, 1 and 1a) with Bobby Orr as the most exciting presence of the expansion era and probably in the game’s history.

Gretzky was sleight-of-hand magic, ridiculously smarter than everybody trying to stop him; calculating and producing numbers that were incalculable. Lemieux neared No. 99’s hockey sense, parlaying that with greater power and longer reach. Eyes taken off either of them were at your own risk. “Did I just see him do that?’

That’s the way it is, too with the slick and quick Crosby, still dominating in a more defensive era that robs him of the gaudy numbers put up by his predecessors. But you must watch the replay for full appreciation of the mastery.

It was different with Orr, as it is now for McDavid. It’s not the results No. 97 produces that amazes and confounds; the joy in what he produces is mostly in the anticipation of it.. As with No. 4, the speed was and is mesmerizing, making their misses as compelling as the successes.

In the wake of Orr, Jaromir Jagr, Paul Coffey and Guy Lafleur were closest in sheer, edge of your seat expectancy. But in an era of depressed scoring—its rising again thankfully, but still nowhere near eighties and early nineties levels¬–McDavid is the most compelling forward we ever have seen.

Of the Oilers’ 151 goals, McDavid has been in on 76 of them. They are up and screaming in Edmonton, both in wonderment and for help.
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“We’ve had stretches we’re very good and had a lot of people participating,” said Coach Ken Hitchcock. “And stretches where we have relied on the same three or four guys. “We want to see who can step forward and be part of the solution.

“As good as your top end might be, that’s not how you win in the NHL. You have to be deep.

“There are five guys back that Connor has to go through. He doesn’t get odd man rushes, the only space he gets is on the power play. Everybody is on his ass every day, every shift.”

In Philadelphia two Flyers were on his ass–or seemingly in position to spank it– when McDavid collected the puck in his own end, pushed it ahead, and with spectacular hand speed to match incredible foot speed, scored between Carter Hart’s arm and body. “He’s a lot faster than he looks on video,” said the rookie goalie.

McDavid looks too fast on video, too, so quick when the guy gathers the puck that he skips the going, going and goes right to gone. Not that he doesn’t have upper body strength, but doesn’t need it to hold opponents off, just pushes the puck ahead and recollects it; zero-to-100 mph ,faster even than the Oilers can blow a high No.1 pick or trade one like Taylor Hall before he becomes a star.

After McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan-Nugent Hopkins, it’s a 5,000-foot cliff down to the next forward in ability. And after Oskar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, and Adam Larsson–forever to be unfortunately labeled not as a solid second-pair defenseman but as what the Oilers got for Hall–the D is thinner than an Edmontonian’s skin became when Chris Pronger said he didn’t want to live there.

Even with troublesome goaltending provided by Mikko Koskinen and Cam Talbot, the Oilers hang only three points out of the playoffs with 30 games to go, thanks to McDavid.

“We have played a GM and a coach out of jobs and we’re next,” McDavid said after Chiarelli’s firing, trying to rally the troops. But he leads a company of unknown soldiers. Meanwhile, back at the garrison, the guard has broken down again following an unsustainable 9-1-1 run. The Oilers have won only two of their last seven.

“The goaltending has been like our team, up and down,” said Hitch.

“When we went on our two runs here they were the story .We need them to be the story again."

Having blown a pair of two goal third period leads in the third period at Philadelphia on silly, reaching, stick fouls that led to four Flyer power goals, the Oilers were up a goal in the third in Montreal the next day and playing well again when Mikko Koskinen let in a softie and the Oilers lost in overtime. The story is looking like the same old story.

Hitchcock can spin them entertainingly like few in the game ever have. But certainly it seems the structure he has brought everywhere Hitch has coached isn’t draining any of McDavid’s genius or enthusiasm. He doesn’t appear bored with his coach’s famously exhausting demands.

“It’s a good partnership,” said Hitchcock. “That’s the whole thing in the NHL–a student-teacher relationship with your captain.

“Same thing I did with (Keith) Primeau and (David) Backes, a great relationship is being built here and it’s not just with the player but in life. I talk to David and Keith all the time.

“I haven’t gotten into how [McDavid] plays. He has enough depth and substance in his game that I don’t worry about it. I haven’t really coached him, only encouraged him. I reward him by playing him a lot.

“I have to be careful because he is such a sincere person that doesn’t want to miss [practice and morning skates] If I am going to play you 24-25 minutes you got to find some rest.”

The 67-year old coach is exhausting every way to squeeze out energy and a goal here and there,begging the nameless to make a name for themslves. The latest is the ultimate helicopter lineup-McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins all up the middle. We highly recommend that they shoot

The Oilers weren’t much deeper than this in 2017, when they upset the Sharks, gave the Ducks a seven-game go, and announced themselves a comer. But they haven’t gotten any better since, so good luck putting up another run like that again.

Hitchcock,moving what his insists was comfortably in a feet-up advisory job in Dallas, says he came back to the bench only for the love of his hometown team and a friendship with Bob Nicholson that goes back to Team Canada in 1988. The coach has no idea if he still will be wanted by the new GM, whoever it is, and that doesn’t seem likely.

At least the players don’t have to worry about their management becoming deadline sellers. There is practically nothing to trade for the level of player the Oilers need, which leaves them trying to squeeze into the postseason under an interim GM in Keith Gretzky, an interim coach in Hitchcock, and very much an interim team.

Around a superstar they wouldn’t have but for all their screwups, the Oilers will build brick by brick. And we’re not talking about a Zack Kassian shot on goal.
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