Goals aren’t coming for Connor McDavid. He’s helping the Oilers more than ever

EDMONTON — Connor McDavid opted for humour when addressing his bizarre offensive run.

“I’ve decided I’m just going to see how many assists I can get,” he said. “That’s the focus. I’m not going to shoot the puck anymore. I’m not going to score any more goals.”

Then the Edmonton Oilers captain added a dose of realism.

“No, of course I want to score,” he said. “I want to produce. I want to help this team any way I can, and scoring goals is part of that.”

McDavid made the comments after Monday’s morning skate and before a matchup against the hated Los Angeles Kings — which the Oilers won 4-2 to snap a three-game winless skid.

Even though those initial comments were made in jest, McDavid was true to his word.

All he did was corral a loose puck in the Kings zone, curl toward the slot and set up Zach Hyman for an easy first-period goal. The assist extended McDavid’s point streak to eight games. He added a secondary helper on Evan Bouchard’s go-ahead goal in the third.

McDavid has 23 points in his last 10 contests, the type of production few can only dream of.

They’ve all been assists. He hasn’t scored a single time.

The stretch is quite the anomaly.

“I can’t put up finger on it why the goals haven’t come,” coach Kris Knoblauch said. “But with the amount of assists he’s had, he’s probably doing something well, too.”

“I saw that today and I thought that he had scored for sure,” defenceman Mattias Ekholm said. “He’s just that impactful anyway. It doesn’t really matter if he gets the goal or the assist.”

The zero in the goal column is a microcosm of his season to date.

McDavid hasn’t scored since Edmonton’s return from the All-Star break, a 3-1 loss in Las Vegas — which, oddly enough, gave him goals in four straight games.

The current drought matches the longest one in McDavid’s career. He also hit double digits from Oct. 30 to Nov. 17, 2016, his second season in the league.

McDavid scored 30 goals in 2016-17, the lowest total he’s had in a full NHL campaign.

With 21 goals in 54 games, he’s barely ahead of that pace. He’s on track for 31.

The drop-off this season has been stunning, particularly because of what he did last season.

Entering the 2022 summer, McDavid made it his mission to become a prolific goal-scorer. He studied video of Auston Matthews’ release. He blasted shots on hot summer days until his hands were blistered and bleeding.

It was his buddy and noted sniper Leon Draisaitl — a three-time 50-goal scorer — who egged McDavid on by issuing a challenge to score 60. Getting there seemed like a reach considering McDavid had never even hit the half-century mark before. Yet, he found the back of the net 64 times to lead the NHL.

McDavid had 20 more goals than his previous career high, set the year before.

“He’s a pass-first guy who scored 60,” Hyman said. “That’s how I talk about Leon, but he scored 60 as a pass-first guy. It’s pretty incredible.”

It was always going to be difficult to get back to that 2022-23 level. But McDavid isn’t in the ballpark.

“He makes his read every time he’s out there — shooting or passing,” Hyman said. “He’s not trying to set records for himself. He’s just trying to win hockey games.

“There’s a lot of randomness to goal scoring.”

There are a few reasons for the drop-off.

He’s shooting the puck less. He had 352 shots in 82 games last season, almost 4.3 on goal per game. After recording three shots on Monday, McDavid has 180 through his first 54 games — a 3.3 average or one fewer shot each game.

“I’m passing away some opportunities every now and then,” he said. “I think back to some two-on-ones — passing away. Good looks in the slot — passing away. Maybe there’s a little bit of that.

“Goal scoring is a little bit lucky, too. Sometimes it’s going in; sometimes it’s not.”

McDavid’s shooting percentage is down, too. He scored on 18.2 percent of his shots in 2022-23. His success rate this season is 11.7, the worst clip of his career.

Per NHL Edge, McDavid was in the top tier when compared to his peers in scoring from the high slot (a 23.5 percent proficiency rate), at the left faceoff dot (24.5 percent), and from the left sideboards (8.3 percent). Those clips are 10 percent, 4.5 percent, and zero percent, respectively — all below league average.

He’s had to rely on getting his goals around the crease, which he felt was his bread and butter before last season.

“I still feel like I’m creating lots and getting looks,” he said. “It’s just not going in for me.”

The goals just haven’t been there for McDavid for most of February — or with the same regularity this season.

But, as Knoblauch and Ekholm referenced, that doesn’t tell the whole story of his campaign. The assists piling up are a reminder of that.

McDavid tops the NHL’s helpers list with 70. He’s on pace for 104. Nobody has reached 100 since Wayne Gretzky in 1990-91.

“I’ve always played with guys that can finish, guys that can score goals,” McDavid said. “I like getting assists, too. I like contributing that way. I like setting teammates up. I like making those plays.”

Oilers forward Zach Hyman battles for the puck against Anze Kopitar of the Kings. (Perry Nelson / USA Today)

The beneficiaries are teammates like Hyman, who has a career-high 38 goals in part because of playing with McDavid for 802 of his 1,077 minutes in all situations — almost three-quarters of his ice time.

“He’s got the puck on his stick more than anybody in the league,” Hyman said. “That’s why he’s got the most assists.

“I wouldn’t have this year without him, obviously. I have the pleasure of playing with him most nights and he’s a phenomenal player.”

As far as Hyman is concerned, McDavid can process the game so well that makes him such a good set-up man.

“He’s able to think where his linemates are going to be and place the puck into space,” Hyman said. “That’s something that the best passers do. They don’t just pass it on your stick. They place it where you’re going to be and then you’re already there.”

McDavid got off to a terrible start to the season by his standards. He had 10 points in his first 11 contests, a period that was interrupted by a two-game injury absence. That stretch included an eight-game goalless drought to end Jay Woodcroft’s coaching tenure.

But just like that 2016-17 campaign when he won his first Art Ross Trophy by topping the NHL with 70 assists, McDavid remains in the mix for his sixth such award thanks to all those helpers.

He’s since moved from a tie for 107th in the scoring race at the time of the coaching change to sitting comfortably in third with 91 points — 11 back of Nikita Kucherov with four games in hand.

“I definitely never count him out,” Hyman said.

“I want to help this team win. I want to help this team any way I can,” McDavid said. “Obviously, for me, that’s producing, too. That’s part of it.

“But just being a full, 200-foot player, that’s all I focus on. Helping this team win is all that matters.”

He’s done that so many times — as he did on Monday.

Per The Athletic’s Net Rating — an all-in-one player value stat that’s based on each player’s offensive and defensive rating — McDavid is still the best skater in the NHL.

So, even if the goals aren’t coming, McDavid continues to be a difference-maker for the Oilers.

“To see that he hadn’t scored in a while was shocking because he’s been great,” Ekholm said. “He’s obviously our leader in here. He shows it every night. He leads by example. I’ve been even more impressed with his defensive detail this year.

“We just want to have him keep going. Scoring goals or not, he’s playing great.”

(Top photo of Connor McDavid looking to make a pass against the Kings: Curtis Comeau / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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