Two of hockey’s superstars will square off Monday night in Toronto as Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers face Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs (6:30 p.m. ET on TSN 4).
Any time you get a head-to-head matchup between players of this calibre, it is must-see television.
Both players were top draft picks – McDavid went first overall in the 2015 NHL Draft, and Matthews followed up as the first-overall pick in the following year – and have taken the league by storm.
No player has racked up points better than McDavid (151 goals and 286 assists) since he entered the league, and absent the superhuman Alexander Ovechkin, no player has scored more goals than Auston Matthews (139) since he entered the league.
In many ways, they’re mirror images of one another. McDavid is a better skater, and Matthews may have a better shot, but when it comes to players of this skill level you are ultimately splitting hairs. That’s why these two stars – along with Sabres captain Jack Eichel – are such fascinating discussion points for how we value individual contributions, and how reliant even hockey’s greatest players are on their supporting cast.
Knock Toronto all day long for their postseason futility, but the Maple Leafs have qualified for the playoffs every single year (averaging 100 points per 82-game season) since Matthews pulled on the blue and white sweater.
It’s a different story for McDavid. He does have one playoff series victory to his name, but he’s also only been to the postseason once. Edmonton has played to an 84-point pace since he’s entered the league, and they are again flirting with the playoff cutline in 2019-20.
More than anything, it emphasizes how critical a supporting cast is in the NHL. This isn’t a league – for better or worse – where one guy can drive an otherwise awful roster to the finish line. So much of the McDavid story – still true as of today – is the fact that the Oilers have never been able to put weapons around and behind their star centre.
Consider how even strength on-ice and off-ice goal differentials have trended for both players over the years. It is night and day:
McDavid and Matthews play a ton relative to their forward counterparts (30 per cent and 27 per cent usage rates, respectively), and yet the reality is they are far more likely than not to be on the bench at any given moment in a game.
In the minutes where both players are off the ice, the Oilers are likely to give goals to the opposition, while the Maple Leafs are still outscoring their opponents by a considerable margin. (It should be noted that Toronto’s net-goal differential, when unitized, is a fraction of what it is with Matthews on the ice.)
This regular season looks like a continuation of what we have seen for both players since entering the league.
In Edmonton, new general manager Ken Holland spent his first off-season building the fringes of the roster up. His non-activity wasn’t a total surprise – the team was quite cap-challenged, thanks in no small part to former GM Peter Chiarelli and the prior front office – but letting McDavid’s fifth year fall by the wayside seemed like a dangerous bet.
Toronto had separate issues: plenty of talent throughout the lineup, but struggling to get results from a roster that owned most of the 2018-19 regular season. That has changed since the team decided to part ways with former head coach Mike Babcock.
I mean, just look at the bottom-nine forwards set to dress for tonight’s game. For two teams with serious playoff aspirations, they could not look any further apart in talent, and that’s true even with Toronto down players like Andreas Johnsson and Ilya Mikheyev due to injury.
The only thing that takes the sting out of the disparity is the fact that coach Dave Tippett has recently pushed Draisaitl back onto his own line, with the formidable Ryan-Nugent Hopkins on his wing. Beyond those two, it is an incredible mixed bag of developing young players, experimental options and players at the fringes of the waiver wire. And trying to patch together a second line has diminished the weaponry around McDavid – down Draisaitl, he now runs with a middle-six option in Zack Kassian and the 32-year-old James Neal.
Edmonton’s minutes without McDavid have been predictably ugly. The Oilers are -21 there at even strength, which is about the goal differential of the cellar-dwelling Anaheim Ducks. Toronto is 26 goals better, running a goal differential comparable to a team like the Philadelphia Flyers, who are well within the playoff hunt.
Keep this in mind when you are watching McDavid and Matthews go toe-to-toe tonight. The action when they are both on the ice will be riveting. But watch as the ice tilts in the direction of Toronto when the two young stars are off the ice.
Source: Hockey Reference, Natural Stat Trick, HockeyDB