The VICTORIOUS HOCKEY COMPANY’s Weekly Newsletter: HOW CONNOR MCDAVID TOOK THE NEXT STEP
Okay, so the season has ended. You have probably participated in playoffs or a combine. Camps are starting up. Some are skating or skill specific, others are for teams trying to get a jump on sorting out prospects for this (and next) season (*Supposedly. Many of the early camps are really just an attempt to get your contact information just to try and continue to sell you something later on). Main camps are a while off and training camp seems forever away.
Do not be fooled. Now is the time to get yourself into review mode and analyse yourself and your game. Those bigger events that occur later in the summer, will be loaded with players just like yourself – trying to take the next step. After the chaos of this past season, the competition will be fierce. Remember that changes in eligibility status will result in more highly skilled players remaining in the system, from the top down. You owe it to yourself to prepare both mentally and physically for challenges that will come as a result.
It is no secret that Connor McDavid is an elite calibre player. He has worked his entire life to get where he is. Though at one point he was exactly where you are. He took command of his process and focused on improving his game and look where it got him. You too, need to do the same. Read through this article about McDavid that Coach Littler has shared. You will see what effort Connor puts into his game. He doesn’t just work on the stuff that he gets so much praise for but he doubles down on his weaknesses. Where the most work is needed.
It is easy to focus on your strengths but becoming exceptional requires the attention and focus necessary to master your weaknesses. Want to advance? Look at what McDavid does and do the same for yourself and your game.
‘THE BIGGEST TRANSFORMATION I’VE EVER SEEN IN AN ELITE PLAYER’: HOW CONNOR MCDAVID TOOK THE NEXT STEP
Daniel Nugent-Bowman, The Athletic, 05.18.2021
*Edited for print without video
Connor McDavid left the Edmonton playoff bubble last August frustrated and annoyed. The Oilers had been the top-seeded team in the Western Conference’s play-in series, skating on their home ice, and still were bounced by a Chicago Blackhawks team that really had no business being there.
McDavid hadn’t played terribly, by any means. He had nine points in four games, including one of the most dazzling goals of the postseason. But the result was a quick out that left him facing questions and feeling he had more to give.
So he also left the bubble with a chip on his shoulder the size of a hockey puck, determined to take the next step in his career for the benefit of the team he captains.
And, no, that didn’t mean adding offence on top of offence, even if that’s been what’s gotten the most attention in the historic season that’s followed.
Instead, defensive play was McDavid’s major focal point.
He watched hours of clips of his efforts in the defensive zone and then compared it to video of the NHL’s best defensive players, past and present — the types of players who regularly go on long playoff runs and hoist the Stanley Cup.
That’s what he wants. He knew he had to change.
“I had a conversation with him this summer that I wish I could have tape-recorded for every young player that’s ever going to play the game of hockey,” says assistant coach Glen Gulutzan, the former Stars and Flames bench boss who has overseen Edmonton forwards the past three seasons.
McDavid laid it all out for Gulutzan, how he would make himself better and how that would make Oilers more suited for postseason success — his primary concern. The NHL’s best player’s plan was to overhaul his game damn near entirely.
“All the top players in the league, they’re out there against tough matchups every night and you can’t be a liability,” McDavid says. “That was the next step for our group.”
McDavid wanted the Oilers coaching staff to pick apart his two-way game and show him where he wasn’t up to snuff. He demanded it. And he took all constructive criticism head-on.
“In this league, there’s perception of what people do — and then there’s reality. This is reality,” Gulutzan says. “One hundred percent accountability. He didn’t try to squirm out of one thing. He took it all. He took the whole thing.”
Adds veteran winger Alex Chiasson: “When you’ve got the best player on your team — your captain— doing that stuff, it’s contagious.”
The work he put in on rounding out his game has been every bit as evident as his scoring, on the ice and in the stats. Whether watching from up close or afar, you can notice how much more dialled in McDavid is to the finer details. And the analytics show that he’s become a positive defensive player when it comes to both expected goals against and shot-attempt differential (Corsi against) per 60 minutes for the first time in his career, according to Evolving-Hockey.
McDavid has always been one to work on his game. This change, though, is different. For him to get to this point has taken time.
Plenty of coaches over the years have worked with McDavid on his defensive approach — as they would for any player — but the appetite for this offseason’s changes came from within. As Gulutzan explains: “That was Connor-driven.”
Ken Hitchcock, who had already coached 1,536 NHL games when he took over from Todd McLellan as the Oilers head coach in November 2018, says McDavid bought into what he was selling almost immediately. His biggest asks were that McDavid stay inside the dots and face the play.
Hitchcock was replaced by Dave Tippett in the 2019 offseason but has continued to watch McDavid’s evolution. He compares his transformation this season to how offensive stars Mike Modano and Steve Yzerman — star forwards Hitchcock coached and game-planned against — shifted to become better all-around players and subsequently won championships.
“That’s what happens when players decide they can get to another level by augmenting the game of checking (in the defensive zone) into their offensive opportunities,”
Hitchcock says. “And then I think what the players find out is that they even get more opportunities then than they had before.”
As Hitchcock suggests, McDavid’s offensive production has only increased with his stronger attention to defence. He just put the finishing touches on one of the greatest scoring regular seasons in NHL history.
That alone would be worth noting for any other player. The amplified defensive side has taken McDavid’s game to a whole new level. It may not put him in the Selke Trophy running, but it only adds to his air-tight case for the Hart Trophy as the most valuable player to his team.
The Modano and Yzerman comparisons might not be strong enough.
“It’s probably the biggest transformation I’ve ever seen in an elite player,” Gulutzan says.
And, to a connoisseur of the game like Gulutzan or Hitchcock, that has nothing to do with the stat sheet. Where do they see the payoff for the film study, shifting focus and offseason work?
Gulutzan provided five examples.
Stopping on pucks and being underneath the play
McDavid was previously the type of player known in coaching parlance as a “circler,” Gulutzan says.
He was usually in constant motion in the defensive zone and often it wouldn’t be to the benefit of defending. His tendency was to cheat for offence, which wasn’t typically necessary for someone with his next-level speed and anticipation skills.
“You can’t just be in motion all the time,” McDavid says. “I would get caught swinging away or by pucks.”
That was then. This is now.
“He holds this position on the ice longer than he did when he first came into the league,” Hitchcock says. “That’s allowed him to be even more effective.”
With two Oilers and two Canadiens fighting for the puck behind the net — and Darnell Nurse and Tomas Tatar inching continuously closer — McDavid gives Tatar a little cross-check while still maintaining his place in front.
The puck juts free and McDavid is there to corral it. He sends winger Jesse Puljujarvi in on a breakaway, which results in a goal — an insurance marker late in the third.
Paying attention to game situations is an area McDavid has really improved. Up 2-1 late, he was standing his ground. Reverse the situation and he’d be more likely to fly the zone at the first glimpse there might be a change in possession.
“Sometimes the clock is the best coach,” Gulutzan says.
Here, McDavid is one of the deepest Oilers in the defensive zone as Toronto rearguard Jake Muzzin falls, resulting in a change in possession.
McDavid’s first instinct is to jump into the rush and turn an Edmonton 3-on-2 into an even more advantageous 4-on-2. He takes a few hard strides before peeling back since a sudden turnover by a teammate could create a last-second golden opportunity for the Leafs with the score tied.
Again, the score is knotted, even though there are still a few minutes left in the first period. McDavid could fly the zone; he sees winger Kailer Yamamoto hurry to check Senators defenceman Thomas Chabot. Instead, he stops up, holds his ice, is available to receive a pass and plays a key role in starting the rush.
“There’s a lot of times where he would skate by things, almost anticipating what’s going on there,” Oilers coach Dave Tippett says. “And now he’s stopping to make sure things are taken care of in his own end.”
Supporting his defencemen
This is a continuation of the previous point. Being in a better position for longer helps the two blueliners on the ice in a couple of ways.
The first is that he’s able to provide backup if his teammates suddenly become outnumbered or are losing a battle for a contested puck.
“He makes sure the job gets done before he goes off to do something else,” Tippett says.
Here, Jets centre Mark Scheifele barrels into Ethan Bear, briefly knocking the puck free. McDavid, in the slot and in perfect position, bolts down to grab the puck and slide it over to Nurse, which allows the Oilers to quickly break out of their zone.
Within seconds, McDavid and Puljujarvi use their speed to push by the Jets defence and create a prime scoring chance.
Again, we see a similar play.
Bear contains Maple Leafs winger Alex Galchenyuk and McDavid swoops in to pick up the puck and get it past a charging Alexander Kerfoot and out of harm’s way.
McDavid’s quick thinking leads to an Oilers rush and shot on goal.
The second way McDavid aids his blueliners is by being available for a quick breakout pass, especially when they’re in trouble.
“He’s making himself a great outlet all the time,” Hitchcock says.
This play could easily go unnoticed because McDavid doesn’t get the puck, though it does eventually lead to a clear chance for him at the other end.
As Nurse reverses the puck to partner Tyson Barrie to alleviate pressure from two Senators forecheckers, McDavid — who was there in support — gets in position and gives Barrie a passing option.
Engaging more in battles
McDavid took part in battles for pucks before, but never like this. As Chiasson pointed out during the Montreal series in April, McDavid’s determination to chase and fight for pucks in the offensive zone has reached another gear. It’s even more apparent in his own end of the rink.
Gulutzan says McDavid was more prone to skating away from opponents in the defensive zone in the past, simply hoping the puck would squirt free and he could transition to what he does best.
This season, that’s seldom the case.
“He doesn’t wait to get the puck. He goes and gets the puck,” Hitchcock says. “He doesn’t wait for it to pop loose. He goes and digs it out and works to get it.
“The biggest thing I see now is Connor plays a game where he’s willing to fight for space rather than look for space.”
Here, the Senators’ Nick Paul flips the puck into the corner and is confronted by Oilers blueliner Kris Russell.
McDavid tries to pry the puck out of the scrum before becoming particularly assertive when Chris Tierney enters the fray. McDavid gives him a cross-check and then staples him against the boards as soon as he touches the puck, allowing the Oilers to gain control.
The Oilers fail to clear the zone and McDavid is at the blue line having pressured Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly. Bear has trouble getting the puck by John Tavares, who then knocks him over with a check. That allows Zach Hyman to gain possession, but McDavid is on him right away and presses him against the boards.
McDavid contains Hyman, one of the best forechecking and board players in the league, until Bear can regain control of the puck and move it ahead to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
There’s backchecking — and then there’s what Gulutzan calls “over-backchecking,” which has been a more common occurrence for McDavid this season.
It might not sound ideal. But make no mistake, it is.
Gulutzan uses the term to explain how much more often McDavid tracks opposing forwards down near the red line rather than getting to them by the time they’ve gained the Edmonton zone.
“He’s using his speed to hunt down people in the neutral zone,” Gulutzan says.
This determined backtracking by McDavid either creates a turnover or forces an opponent to dump the puck in rather than cross the blue line with possession. Advantage Edmonton.
That’s exactly what happens here.
Hyman picks up the puck at the hashmarks along the boards in the Toronto zone and pushes it ahead as he skates up ice. McDavid makes a beeline for him and catches him by the red line.
All Auston Matthews can do when he gets the puck is flip it into the Edmonton zone.
McDavid isn’t nearly as aggressive— you can see him gliding — although the puck had already been chipped in and it’s a 2-on-2 situation.
As soon as he senses trouble, though, McDavid immediately gets to the Oilers net to negate a golden opportunity for the Senators. The puck quickly gets out of the zone as three Oilers skate ahead.
Improving his faceoff work
The importance of winning faceoffs seems to have been devalued by some in the analytics community, but starting with the puck as often as possible still matters to coaches.
Gulutzan is quick to point out that McDavid has increased winning percentage on draws, which he won 49.5 percent of this season — up from a previous best of 47.8 percent last season.
It’s something McDavid made a “conscious effort to improve,” Gulutzan says.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported earlier this season that McDavid spent part of the offseason getting instruction from former Oilers centre and assistant coach Keith Acton and his son, Will, another ex-Oiler.
McDavid watched every one of his faceoffs from the 2019-20 campaign during the offseason. He also studied the tendencies of centres he’d be lining up against in the Canadian division, according to assistant coach Brian Wiseman — the Oilers’ eye in the sky whose responsibilities include faceoff work.
It’s a skill McDavid works on almost daily. His technique has improved, Wiseman says, in all facets — strong and weak side, against righties and lefties.
“He’s carried it throughout the whole season,” Wiseman says.
Leon Draisaitl still takes more of the faceoffs when the two superstars play together. He’s taken 246 faceoffs on the power play compared to just 14 for McDavid. But there are times when McDavid has spelled his more proficient teammate at even strength. McDavid has been Edmonton’s second-best and second-most-replied-upon faceoff man this season.
“It’s not surprising that you see that continued growth,” Wiseman says.
“He’s Intrinsically motivated to be the best.”
McDavid is having a season for the ages. He recorded a point on 105 of the Oilers’ 183 regular-season goals. That’s 57.38 percent, which broke Mario Lemieux’s previous NHL record of factoring into 57.35 percent of a team’s goals, set with the 1988-89 Penguins.
McDavid does something truly amazing almost every night he plays. And his contributions go far beyond goals, assists or points to his coach.
“Connor’s taken his game to a different level this year,” Tippett says. “Connor’s game all over the ice, not just offensively, has been really strong.”
The transformation began right after the Oilers lost to the Blackhawks in four games last August in their best-of-five series. Such a result wasn’t good enough.
It started with a commitment he made to himself, one that didn’t need any coaxing, and one he’s followed up with on the ice.
“You don’t have to drill it in his head at all,” Tippett says. “He wants to win. He recognizes that’s what you have to do to win.
“He really dug in. He had the mindset that he was going to try to be better all over the ice, and he’s done a good job of it this year.”
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