EDMONTON, AB - One month into the 2015-16 season and teams are still finding their way and creating an identity. The Oilers scored two goals or fewer in their first four games of the season. Since then, however, they’ve averaged 3.38 goals per game as the offence has taken an upward swing. That charge offensively has been led by the top two lines and two of the players within the top six have earned league recognition.
Taylor Hall was named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week on Monday, while Connor McDavid was named the Rookie of the Month shortly after.
Last week, Hall posted three multi-point games to pace the NHL in scoring with seven points (2-5-7). Hall, through 12 games, leads the Oilers in scoring with 13 points (5-8-13).
McDavid joins Oilers centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Chicago’s Patrick Kane, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury, as well as Ottawa’s Alexandre Daigle as first-overall picks to earn Rookie of the Month honours in the first month of the season.
“It’s definitely been a good ride so far and just have to keep it going,” said McDavid of his first month in the NHL.
McDavid is second on the Oilers in scoring with 12 points (5-7-12) and is tied for the lead in goals with five. He leads all NHL rookies in scoring, trailed closely by Arizona’s Max Domi who had 11 points in 11 games as of Monday morning.
Hall and McDavid, who started training camp and the regular season on a line together, have flourished on separate lines as of late.
“It’s funny, that they were together and then they were apart and both of their games took off,” said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan. “Sometimes, guys just don’t click at a given time but that doesn’t mean they’re going to play apart all the time. They could very well find their way back together. As they were separated, they each took charge of a line and we’ve had very good performances from both of them. They’ve contribute immensely to our success, what success we’ve had.”
Hall has been reunited with Nugent-Hopkins as his centre and is currently riding a five-game point streak. Nugent-Hopkins also has points in his last five games (1-6-7). With the shoulder injury to Jordan Eberle, the two have seen a mix of right wingers but have combined to be an effective offensive pair. Leon Draisaitl was recalled last week and has three goals and two assists in just two games while playing with Hall and Nugent-Hopkins.
“I think, along with a lot of guys on our team, we’re starting to figure out what we need to do as a team and how Todd wants us to play,” said Hall. “It’s been nice to have Leon along with Ryan on our line. We seem to be working well lately.”
McDavid has seen much success with Benoit Pouliot and Nail Yakupov as his linemates. Both are also off to fast starts to their seasons and, especially as of late, have produced. Pouliot saw his five-game point streak come to an end on Saturday against Calgary, but has goals in three of his last five games. Yakupov is third on the team in scoring with 10 points (2-8-10).
“I think it’s a good combination,” said McDavid. “Benny has the size and speed and he keeps a lot of pucks alive, either on the forecheck or on the back check or on the wall. I think that helps for sure. Then Yak obviously has the skill. Any time you’re going to give him the puck in a good area it’s usually going to go in. I think it’s been a good combination so far.”
For Hall, the Oilers winger focused on a fast start to the season, even before it began.
“I’ve never been a good starter and that’s something I wanted to change this year,” said Hall. “The biggest thing for me, and I’m still focusing on it, is staying healthy. I want to play every game this year, and if I do that I know that I’m going to be there for my team, most importantly, and I’m going to be able to produce offence and just being in the lineup is going to help me a lot.”
McDavid was selected first overall in this year’s draft and was expected to contribute, so it’s not too surprising to see him putting up numbers. However, how quickly he has grasped the game mentally and how he has affected his teammates is interesting.
“It’s matured already,” McLellan said of McDavid’s game. “For an 18-year-old, you don’t think it’s gong to advance that quick but his game has matured in a lot of different areas. He went from being a player to a catalyst on the team. I think that’s real important. He energized a lot of individuals. He began to understand the parameters of what was going on system-wise and opponent-wise, what you can get away with, what you can’t get away. A lot of improvement and not necessarily skill-wise, but the mental aspect of what can and can’t happen on the rink.”
McDavid went from finding his place in the league to being comfortable in it really quick.
“I think I just feel more confident going into games now,” he said. “You don’t know what you don’t know, right? I had never played in a game before and I didn’t know what to expect going into the games. Now you get a better sense for the tempo, the physicality of the game. I think just overall comfort level is the difference.”
In addition to the progress McDavid has made over the course of just one month, the Oilers are seeing encouraging things in Hall’s game.
“Taylor scores and he’s a bully and he’s strong, he puts the team on his back sometimes and really pushes,” said McLellan. “We’re really hard on him for some defensive responsibilities but he’s really improved in that area so we catch him scoring the goals but we also catch him doing real responsible things defensively.”
Despite the slow start offensively, the Oilers have worked their way to being the 11th highest scoring team in the league with 32 goals so far this season (as of Monday). Hall, McDavid and the rest of the Oilers top six have shouldered a lot of that offensive burden, but if the team wants more success moving forward more contributions are needed.
“(Our offence) isn’t where we want it to because we’re relying too much on six players or two lines,” said McLellan. “There has to be a push from one of the other two lines to maintain momentum, establish momentum and not necessarily score all the time but eat minutes in the offensive zone. I think that will help us defensively as well. The ratio of minutes isn’t large enough right now, spread out throughout our lineup.”
As the Oilers look for offence from the remainder of their lineup, the club can look back on October and take positives from the fact that both Hall and McDavid are in the top 15 in NHL scoring.