Connor McDavid and Oilers take one for the league in playoff format

The Oilers will have to participate in a play-in series despite the fact they finished second in their division and superstar Connor McDavid was a key part of the Return-to-Play Committee. It was there that McDavid once again proved he's one of the game's most selfless players.
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When Connor McDavid was coming out of his entry-level contract in 2018, there was nothing stopping him from demanding $15 million a year on an eight-year deal. There was also nothing stopping him from taking a shorter term. He could have easily told the Edmonton Oilers, “I’m the best player in the world and I deserve to get the maximum salary. If you want to win a Stanley Cup, you’re going to have to pay me and build a team around me.” Instead, McDavid signed an extension a year early and took one for the team, settling for $12.5 million a year and leaving a total of $20 million on the table over the life of the contract. Discuss amongst yourselves whether or not the Oilers have used those savings wisely.

Three years have passed since then and McDavid continues to establish himself without peer in the hockey world. At the age of 23, he was asked to be part of the NHL’s Return-to-Play Committee, the one that concocted the 24-team tournament in which 16 teams, his Oilers included, will have to participate in a play-in series. This despite the fact that his team was second in its division when the NHL paused and faces a play-in opponent that has a core of players who have won three Stanley Cups in the past decade. And if the Oilers are going to win the Stanley Cup this year, they’ll have to win 19 games over five series instead of 16 over four.

You got the sense from McDavid’s demeanor, and some of his words, during a videoconference Thursday afternoon, that he’s not thrilled about it. He could have capitalized on his profile and stature in the league and could have dug his heels on with the committee, but instead chose to look at the bigger picture and do what it would take to get the players back on the ice. And that should surprise no one who has been around this young man the past couple of years.

McDavid had to do a delicate dance here. Of the five players on the committee, there’s no doubt McDavid had more to potentially lose than any of the others. Ron Hainsey’s Ottawa Senators were hopelessly out of the race and not a factor. Mark Scheifele’s Winnipeg Jets would have been out of the playoffs based on their win percentage if the league had adopted its current playoff format. John Tavares and his Maple Leafs were the eighth-best team in their conference and James van Riemsdyk’s Philadelphia Flyers were firmly ensconced in the top four in the Eastern Conference. That left McDavid, whose Oilers were in second in the Pacific Division and fifth in the Western Conference in points percentage. It must have been difficult for him to straddle those two lines, no?

“It wasn’t tough, honestly,” McDavid said. “Everyone on that committee, everyone in the league, has to take a step back and say, ‘What’s best for the league?’ and not say, “What’s best for me and my team?’ There are going to be teams that aren’t thrilled and there are going to be teams that are ecstatic about the format and that’s just the way it is. We’ve got a lot of guys to please and you can’t please them all. Unfortunately we’re one of those teams that was on the bubble. We weren’t in the top four and Dallas probably deserves to be there. We’ll do what we have to do and play the play-in and get the job done and hopefully move on to a really exciting playoff.”

The Oilers should be able to win a best-of-five series against the 12th-placed team in the Western Conference, but it should be noted that the Blackhawks actually won two of the three games against the Oilers during the regular season. It’s certainly not inconceivable that a rested, veteran team such as the Blackhawks, with all those Stanley Cup rings and all that playoff experience, could give the Oilers all they can handle. But if it turns out Edmonton can’t beat Chicago in the play-in series, that probably would not have augured well for their playoff hopes anyway. “This is a format that’s obviously not perfect,” McDavid said. “But it’s the best we’ve got. And that’s what we’re going with.”

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