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Holding Back McDavid

Connor McDavid is having a tremendous season, but some of his on-ice numbers suggest his own team might be holding him back.

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Enough can’t be said about Connor McDavid and the great season he’s been having. He currently leads the league in points with 85, including 57 assists. The Oilers are a different, much more offensive team with him on the ice, posting a higher share of shots, scoring chances and goals at even-strength (5v5).

Breaking out his on-ice numbers at even-strength into rolling 25-game segments, we see that for the most part the Oilers’ share of events have regularly been well above the break-even point when McDavid is on the ice. These really are remarkable numbers for a second-year forward, and it’s possible that the best is yet to come.

Data: Corsica Hockey

The one metric that stands out in the graph above is the team’s share of shot attempts in blue (Corsi For%) and unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick For%) with McDavid on the ice, as it’s been steadily declining since around mid-January sitting just barely over 50%. Over the course of the season, the Oilers have posted a 52.95% share of the shot attempts with McDavid on the ice. But since mid January, that share has dropped down to 49.89%.

There’s nothing about McDavid’s game that suggests he might be the problem: he’s been healthy, he continues to play his usual style to generate chances, he’s been shooting around the same frequency all season and he’s been very productive on a line with Patrick Maroon and Leon Draisaitl.

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Edmonton Oilers Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

One of the factors likely impacting McDavid’s on ice Corsi For% is the defence pairing of Andrej Sekera and Kris Russell. This season, the pair have regularly played top four minutes for the Oilers and have a Corsi For% of 44.84% at even-strength, one of the worst shares on the team and in the league among regular pairings. What’s most concerning is that their play together has been getting progressively worse, and it’s starting to impact the productivity of one of the best players in the world.

Below is a graph containing the Corsi For% when McDavid is on the ice with one of the two most common defence pairings this season: Larsson/Klefbom, and Russell/Sekera. These two pairings have really been the Oilers top four this season, and have played similar levels of competition. What I’ve done here is break out the season into two: the games up to and including January 10th, 2017, and games since that date.

Data: Hockey Analysis

Here we see that McDavid has posted slightly better numbers more recently with the Larsson-Klefbom pair, going from 49.2% before January 10th, to 51.3% since. With Russell and Sekera, McDavid was posting a 48.2% share of shot attempts, but that number has dropped considerably to 43.8% since mid-January. If we’re wondering why McDavid’s own on-ice Corsi For% has been dropping, we may have found one of the main drivers of it.

These are the kinds of numbers a coaching staff needs to address, as a critical piece of their offence is being negatively impacted by a poor defence pairing. There’s no question that Sekera and Russell are capable NHL defencemen, but it’s become obvious that as a pairing they’ve been doing more harm than good. Russell is playing above his established NHL level, and is better suited on his left-side, in more of a depth role and can contribute on the penalty-kill. And Sekera has had more success when paired with a right-handed defenceman. This season, paired with rookie Matt Benning for just under 200 minutes, the duo have a Corsi For% of 58.01%, the best on the team, and a goal-share of 58.82%. With McDavid on the ice with them, the Oilers have posted a Corsi For% of 56.8%. And in 2015/16, when Sekera was paired with Mark Fayne and took to the ice with McDavid, the Oilers posted a Corsi For% of 51.1%.

Whatever the Oilers do, they have to ensure that their best player is in a position to generate offence. McDavid is the key driver for the club, as their season and post-season success, will depend on his performance. It’s obvious that there’s an issue with the club when the team’s possession numbers are sliding with their best player on the ice. Finding a solution could be as simple as tweaking the defence combinations and deploying players differently. Or it could require system adjustments, possibly moving away from a dump-and-chase style, that accommodates the skill and speed of their best players. Generating offence has to be the goal and maximizing McDavid’s potential is going to be critical today and going forward.

Data: Corsica Hockey, Hockey Analysis