If there was not already a panic setting across Oil Country before Saturday’s loss to the Winnipeg Jets, the injury to Connor McDavid certainly changed that mood. In all the sport there is no one quite as supernatural as McDavid, so it is quite expected that there is more of an obsession around the nature of his injury than most. Where did he grab? What did he say to the trainers? Can anyone read lips?
For now it seems the star centre will be out one to two weeks, long enough that McDavid’s availability for the Heritage Classic is in doubt. Naturally, this does cast a gloom on a season that has already started off poorly for the Oilers, and the Oilers are hardly better off without McDavid in the lineup. Sure, it must be admitted that a prognosis measured in weeks is favourable compared to one measured in months, but perhaps there can be a silver lining beyond that. In the attrition known as the NHL, adversity and opportunity share a space as two sides of the same coin. Let’s take a look at some of the ways that the Oilers might overcome the injury to their captain.
Mental reset for the roster
The Oilers came into the season on a high, widely expected to be one of the league’s top teams. As much as this thinking was based on the strength of the roster on paper, it was also based on the team’s history, having bloomed into a perennial contender since Coach Jay Woodcroft took over in February 2022. Of course, Woodcroft would be the first to point out that the past is gone, that teams must continue to prove themselves in each minute of each game, and that a team’s identity must be reforged each season.
As last season came to a close, Woodcroft spoke about using the disappointment of playoff defeat as motivational fuel, an engine to drive strong offseason training, and a call to action in the pursuit of evolution towards a further greatness. By all accounts through the offseason, the message was received and accepted, even embraced by the team. With their words we heard of a commitment to team defence, focus, and intensity. With their actions we saw a driven group, as the team had full attendance to their “optional” Captain’s Skates before training camp. Even Woodcroft’s assessment at the end of the preseason lauded the team’s headspace, a unity in their commitment to their purpose.
Then the regular season started. It is still quite early, but the Oilers we have seen through five games are anything but focused or intense. While McDavid’s injury is not good news, it is a clear challenge. Coaches and players will be at full attention, and there will be little choice for the Oilers but to overcome the loss but to double down on their efforts to become a finely tuned, defensively sound, level of play that is required of a champion. There is little doubt that McDavid is the world’s best player, thus the question is often how good of a team are the Oilers without him?
Ultimately the team has started quite slowly in seasons past, but seems to improve over the course of each season. While his playoff resume might be contentious for some across Oil Country, Woodcroft has shown that, from a season-long perspective, his tactical adjustments pay dividends. With an overhaul of several systems new for this season, the Oilers have seemed overly tentative or thoughtful at times. This might be most evident in the number of turnovers that have led to the majority of the team’s goals against, those scored off of odd man rushes. It might also lead to other issues beyond that, as the liquid flow state of hockey sees all aspects of the game interconnected.
That being said, early results of the new in-zone system, the box+1, seem quite promising. There is hope that the Oilers are equipped to embody a more consistent defensive aptitude, one they will need to reach their goal. Perhaps this injury will be an impetus for the team to get back on track, or rather, to reach new heights defensively.
Of course, the most negatively affected area by McDavid’s absence is the offence. The power play will have to adapt, as will the even strength lines. As it currently stands the Oilers will need to promote one of their players into a top-six forward role. Options already in the roster have seen bumps up the lineup, notably as veterans Warren Foegele and Mattias Janmark have seen themselves moved up recently.
While it is not entirely surprising to see players of this ilk rewarded, especially this early in the season, the more intriguing options come in the form of some younger players looking to further come into their own in Ryan McLeod and Dylan Holloway.
For now, Holloway finds himself on a line with McLeod. McLeod has improved upon his impressive defensive results of last season, as any line centred by him has graded out well in terms of expected goals. Holloway has been involved, and the two already look to be a formidable checking duo. With a few veteran options, currently Connor Brown, to complete the line. The vision for the remainder of the season has McLeod and Holloway on the same line, so there might be some hesitation in splitting them up. Without McDavid, even on a line together, we should see both receive more icetime. It might even be possible that Holloway-McLeod-Brown pushes the line of Foegele-Nugent-Hopkins-Janmark for minutes outright.
A more radical reshuffling might see Holloway moved to the middle on the third line, backfilling for McLeod who would be promoted to the top six. There might not be overwhelming evidence that McLeod can handle such offensive responsibilities, but in fairness he has rarely been given a shot to play with higher scoring linemates. In the brief moments that he has gotten the chance over the past few years, McLeod has played well with Leon Draisaitl. McLeod adds a level of speed and defensive ability that is appreciated by Draisaitl, while Draisaitl’s prowess unlocks any playmaking ability that McLeod can provide.
For his part, Holloway has recently moved more often to centre. While his place in the lineup is falling per se, this is still an increased responsibility for Holloway, a sign that the developmental plan might prioritise positional flexibility going forward over minutes now. It would certainly be interesting to see him in a top-six role, as golden an opportunity as one could ask for. He might be ready for such an opportunity too, but has yet to prove himself over as long of a period as his teammates.
As McDavid is not on LTIR, the Oilers gain no cap relief in his absence. This means that the Oilers don’t have space to call up anyone else, although it should be noted that there are ways to manoeuvre around this issue, if only temporarily, or even moving other NHL roster players down to the AHL.
There are a few options in the AHL that make sense for fans to dream of. Likely first on this list is Raphael Lavoie, who many felt should have made the team out of camp. Lavoie is off to a hot start to his AHL season, though in an extremely small sample size. Still, Lavoie took over as a legitimate and consistent top line scorer in the back half of last season, proving he might be as ready as ever to make the jump to the NHL.
Lavoie has all the physical tools, size, speed, a heavy shot, and puck skills, to make an offensive impact. The trouble is that his lack of ability as a defensive option makes it more difficult for coaches to find a role for him in the bottom six. In other words, as a role for a featured scorer is up for grabs, it makes a lot of sense that this would be an ideal opportunity for Lavoie to audition.
Of course the cap constraints are a hurdle here, but the Oilers might want to see if he can replicate his sustained success of last season for a longer stretch before considering a promotion. This might include how he handles not making the team out of training camp. Given his strong start to the season, it is extremely likely that Lavoie sees himself on the NHL roster at some point this season. The decision to put him on waivers was a bold one, likely made with some conviction, though an injury to McDavid certainly does qualify for consideration in re-assessing things.
While the Oilers still want to see more from Lavoie at the AHL level before a call up, this goes double for younger prospects, like Xavier Bourgault. While Bourgault is ascending as a prospect, he has yet to prove himself a top line AHLer at this point. It might be as soon as the winter months that Bourgault does so, if only to the extent of earning a short audition this season, expecting a regular and meaningful NHL role from Bourgault this season is fairly ambitious. Bourgault projects as a much stronger defender than Lavoie, perhaps making his path to the NHL more viable in the long run, especially in justifying a spot in the bottom six.
Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire