Generations of NHL stars set to collide

Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli tells Hockey Central at Noon that even though there's all the added hype surrounding Connor McDavid, they're just going to treat the young phenom like 'one of the guys.'

The hockey world is tilting on its axis as the puck drops on the 2015-16 NHL season, bringing about a collision of stars that comes around less than once in a generation.

Consider it a lunar eclipse even more rare than the blood moon.

You have generational talents in Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel — centres so enticing that teams were willing to lose for a year to get them — rocketing into orbit while the deities of the last decade, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, have neither burned out nor faded away.

There are obvious parallels to 2004-05 with a pair of future superstars arriving together, but the wider landscape is totally different. Back then Crosby and Ovechkin were desperately needed to inject excitement and sell a sport that was emerging from an ugly year-long lockout.

They handled great expectations and delivered in a major way, finishing among the scoring leaders in Jaromir Jagr‘s final dominant season, while filling a much-needed talent vacuum in the process. (Jagr, unbelievably, is still playing and says he’s currently growing a mullet like the one he had in his days as a NHL star).

The NHL has seen an unprecedented number of young players rise to prominence in the years since, emerging like an echo behind Crosby and Ovechkin.

Among them:
Jonathan Toews, the captain of three Stanley Cup champions and a two-time Olympic gold medallist, who has cemented a reputation as the game’s ultimate winner at age 27.

Steven Stamkos, twice a Rocket Richard Trophy winner, who is fresh off leading Tampa Bay within two games of the Stanley Cup and remains one of the most dangerous snipers in the league.

John Tavares, twice a finalist for the Hart Trophy, who is at the forefront of the New York Islanders renaissance and has become the face of the franchise as it moves to Brooklyn, N.Y.

Carey Price and P.K. Subban, polar opposite personalities but foundational pillars for the Montreal Canadiens, who have given fans reason to believe that the glory days could return again.

The list certainly doesn’t need to end there.

What can’t be debated is where Crosby and Ovechkin fit into the conversation. They’ve been setting the standard continually for 10 years and pushing one another to greater heights.

Ovechkin took the Calder Trophy in their rookie year and Crosby became the youngest scoring champion in NHL history the following season.

Crosby won the Stanley Cup, and later added two Olympic gold medals with Team Canada, while Ovechkin accumulated an incredible amount of individual hardware: Winning the Hart Trophy three times, the Ted Lindsay Award three times, the Rocket Richard Trophy five times and the Art Ross Trophy once.

Both have long been assured of an eventual place in the Hockey Hall of Fame and still have time to pad their credentials. Crosby celebrated his 28th birthday in August while Ovechkin turned 30 last month.

It is against that backdrop the Next Ones arrive.

There’s no telling how long it will take for McDavid and Eichel to find their place among the game’s crowded elite, but if the odds are set at one year you’d be wise to take the under. Scouts are in near-unanimous agreement that the future is now.

Eichel has spent the pre-season scoring highlight-reel goals — not to mention working long-suffering fans of the Buffalo Sabres into a justifiable frenzy. His game is speed and skill. He’s a rare talent.

Yet he’s been overshadowed by McDavid, who Wayne Gretzky labelled the most exciting player to enter the league in 30 years. As if that isn’t enough, Stamkos believes the 18-year-old Edmonton Oilers forward is already better than he is.

And Tavares has counted himself a fan for the better part of a year, regularly watching McDavid highlights online.

Ask any player, it seems, what they expect to see from the prodigy and their face lights up with possibility.

“I think that expectations, he’s going to probably exceed everyone’s,” said Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, an Edmonton native.

Perhaps the greatest thing of all is that McDavid doesn’t have to be a singular star. He will be forever measured against Eichel, and together they’ll be compared to Crosby and Ovechkin.

This season, starting Wednesday, they all orbit the same planet together.