Connor McDavid & Co. (Getty Images)
Since Connor McDavid was put between Benoit Pouliot and Nail Yakupov they’ve been among the best trios in the entire NHL.
After a slower-than-expected start to his NHL career, Connor McDavid has exploded onto the scene recently. McDavid has extended his point streak to seven games, posting four goals and seven assists in that time, vaulting him into a tie for fifth in the league in scoring. Not bad for an 18-year-old rookie. McDavid is obviously a special player that deserves all the credit he’s getting, but give some credit to coach Todd McLellan, too. When things weren’t clicking early with Taylor Hall, McLellan wasted little time finding a better fit. It was only the pre-season plus a game and a half before the split occurred, but it was clear it wasn’t working for the two. McLellan put McDavid between Benoit Pouliot and Nail Yakupov and they’ve been on fire ever since. Through the month of October, it’s not a stretch to say that they’ve been one of the NHL's best lines.
So far, the trio has spent just over 100 minutes together, scoring nine goals at 5-on-5 – which is roughly five goals per 60 minutes. Perhaps even more impressive is that Edmonton as a whole has only scored 16 goals at 5-on-5, meaning the McDavid line alone is responsible for 56 percent of the Oilers’ 5-on-5 offence. Those are dominant numbers, but they’ve also been a bit fortunate, scoring on 16 percent of their shots when they’re on the ice together. With an elite talent like McDavid, that number can stay high, but 10 to 12 percent is probably a more reasonable expectation. That’s where the Crosbys and Getzlafs of the world usually reside. With that being said, it’s not just about offence. They’ve been very good at maintaining puck possession, grabbing 52.3 percent of the shot attempts which is really good considering Edmonton as a team gets just 45.9 percent. Here’s how they stack up with some of the league’s other best lines from October based on per minute scoring and team relative possession rates.
The trio is generating chances and suppressing their opponents offence well, and when you combine that with their nose for the net, they look unstoppable on the ice. Take Thursday night for example, when the Oilers stormed back from an early 3-0 hole against the 9-1-0 Canadiens on the strength of two goals in the third from the McDavid line. In previous seasons, that 3-0 deficit was pretty much insurmountable, but that’s not the case this season with an offence that’s capable of busting out at any time. If it’s not McDavid-Pouliot-Yakupov doing the damage, the Oilers other line full of top five picks will do the trick. The reason McDavid-Pouliot-Yakupov has been so successful is the way it’s constructed. Most great lines have balance between the three forwards where each brings a separate skill-set necessary for maintaining possession and executing chances. Generally speaking, most successful lines are built by putting a puck carrier with a scorer and a digger. There’ll obviously be nuance to that and exceptions to the rule, but a line with those three roles filled will usually find success. McDavid has explosive speed, creativity, and sublime playmaking ability that makes him exceptionally dangerous with the puck. You want the puck on McDavid’s stick as much as possible because great things are bound to happen. The offence runs through him. On the wing, there’s the extremely underrated Pouliot who’s been an analytics darling for the past few years. Pouliot drives puck possession like very few wingers in hockey and is a complete 200 foot player. From 2012 to 2015, Pouliot has a shot attempt percentage of 52.4 which is over three percent better than when he’s on the bench. That’s a first line calibre puck possession rate and it’s because he’s so effective at retrieving pucks and winning battles. He’s also a more gifted scorer than he’s given credit for with a 5-on-5 points per 60 that’s hovered around a first line rate for the past seven seasons. Pouliot is very effective with or without the puck and if you give him some ice-time and he’ll produce. Then there’s the oft-maligned Yakupov who’s had a troubling development curve. With McDavid as his center though, he looks to be back on track. Yakupov is taking almost 10 shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 and has steadily improved that number every season. He’s shown potential as an elite trigger man in the past and with his shot rate steadily increasing he could start lighting the lamp very soon, especially with McDavid feeding him pucks. Put that all together and it’s no surprise that they’ve quickly become one of the league’s best lines. With McDavid between Pouliot and Yakupov, the Oilers have found a perfect fit.