Why McDavid’s draft-year run beats Crosby’s

Connor McDavid had a goal and four assists to lead the Erie Otters over the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds 7-3 in Game 6 to take the Western Conference championship and the Wayne Gretzky Trophy.

Pity Connor McDavid.

He has suffered through thousands of comparisons to Sidney Crosby and will have to suffer through a dozen or so for every one already in the books.

Of course, in the wake of the Erie Otters’ 7-3 win over the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and with their trip to the OHL championship series upcoming, McDavid might be somewhat less ambivalent about the exercise. If knocking off the top-ranked team in the CHL in a best-of-seven series can’t get you looking on the bright side, nothing will.

Really, though, today’s missive focuses only somewhat on Nos. 87 and 97 and more to the point on what their teams accomplished in their respective draft years: in Crosby’s case, carrying a Rimouski team to a Memorial Cup final; in McDavid’s so far, taking his team to an OHL championship series against the Oshawa Generals who beat the Battalion in North Bay Sunday afternoon to take the Eastern Conference’s Bobby Orr Trophy in six games.

Even if the Otters don’t win another game this season, I’m convinced that McDavid has had a superior spring to that of Crosby in 2005. Let’s set aside the 42 points he has racked up in these playoffs so far or his five points in last night’s clinching game. Much more important is the strength of schedule, a concept that determines everything in U.S. college sports but doesn’t figure in pro sports chiefly because teams play a balanced schedule, at least one fairly balanced in their respective conferences. It’s not talked about in major-junior hockey but, in theory, it should be. There’s no available computer model for this, though I’m sure someone will contrive to come up with one. But it’s something more than an empirical exercise, something more than an eye test.

You won’t find any NHL scout who scouted Crosby and has worked McDavid’s games who’ll tell you that the level of competition in the QMJHL a decade ago is a patch on that in the OHL circa 2014-15. If you break it down to the component parts, it’s plain on its face.

With Rimouski having a first-round bye based on a league-best record, Crosby had to get through just three rounds of playoff hockey to book a trip to the Memorial Cup: Lewiston in the quarters, Chicoutimi in the semis and Halifax in the finals.

Here’s what those three Q teams produced in the way of pro players. It’s not quite comprehensive — there might be a few guys who made a dent in the East Coast Hockey League but the trend is easy to spot.

Lewiston (swept in four by Rimouski)

  • Forward Alex Bourret, a first-round pick of Atlanta, played two seasons in AHL and no higher.
  • Right winger Alexandre Picard, a first-round pick of Columbus, had no goals and two assists in 67 career NHL games. (Must have been good in the room.)
  • Chad Denny, a second-rounder of Atlanta, played two seasons in the AHL and no higher.

Chicoutimi (losers in a five-game series to Rimouski)

  • Forward David Desharnais, then 17, would pass through multiple drafts and sign with Montreal as a free agent and stick in the league.
  • Forward Marek Zagrapan, a first-round pick of Buffalo, never came close to playing.
  • Left winger Nicholas Blanchard, a sixth-rounder of Carolina, went pointless in six games with the Hurricanes a couple of years back and is hanging on in the AHL.
  • Goaltender Alexandre Vincent, a fourth-rounder of Vancouver, never signed a pro deal.

Final: Halifax (swept in four by Rimouski)

  • Goaltender Jason Churchill, a fourth-rounder of San Jose, vanished without a trace after his QMJHL career.
  • Forward Petr Vrana, a second-rounder of New Jersey, played in 16 NHL games, the only one of the Mooseheads’ top six forwards to make it that far.
  • A couple of low draft picks that lasted a couple of seasons in AHL but topped out there.

Sarnia (swept in the opening round by Erie)

  • Centre Pavel Zacha sits at No. 8 among North American skaters as ranked by NHL Central Scouting for the 2015 draft.
  • Right winger Nikita Korostelev is ranked 50th on the same list.
  • Defenceman Jakob Chychrun was the first-overall selection in the 2014 OHL draft and projects as a top-15 pick in next year’s NHL draft.

London (swept in the second round by Erie)

  • Maxi Domi was a first-round pick of the Coyotes in 2013 and a first-line forward with the gold-medal winners at this year’s world junior tournament.
  • Mitch Marner ranks at No. 6 on Central Scouting’s list.
  • Centre Christian Dvorak is a second-rounder of Arizona.
  • Defenceman Julius Bergman is a second-rounder of San Jose.
  • Defenceman Matt Rupert has signed on with the Toronto Marlies as free agent.
  • Defenceman Chris Martinet projects as a third- or fourth rounder.

Sault Ste. Marie (beaten in six games by Erie)

  • Defenceman Darnell Nurse is a first-rounder of Edmonton and was the world junior champs’ top blueliner.
  • Left winger Nick Ritchie is a first-rounder of the Anaheim Ducks and also an alum of the world junior champs.
  • Centre Jared McCann is a first-rounder of Vancouver.
  • Defenceman Anthony DeAngelo is a first-rounder of Tampa Bay.
  • Right winger Justin Bailey is a second-rounder of Buffalo.
  • Goaltender Brandon Halverson is a second-rounder of the Rangers.
  • Left winger Michael Bunting is a fourth-rounder of Arizona.
  • Centre Blake Speers is ranked No. 49 on Central Scouting’s list.

Of course, these are drafted players but even if a few might make no more of an impression than the flops in the Q in Crosby’s year, it’s hard to argue that 87 was in against players of the quality that McDavid has faced just to this point of the playoffs, never mind what he’ll face against the Generals who have a couple of first-rounders of their own and a bunch of drafted players.

You can make the case that there’s more talent surrounding McDavid than Crosby had in Rimouski. No argument here.

Crosby had Marc-Antoine Pouliot, a first-rounder who played 189 games with Edmonton and three with Tampa Bay before heading to Europe. But the fall-off after Pouliot was dramatic.

Most notably McDavid has centre Dylan Strome, a likely top-five pick in June but a player seemingly limping for stretches against the Soo. Right winger Nick Baptiste is a third-rounder of Buffalo and had a couple of huge games against the Greyhounds. Left wing Remi Elie is a second-rounder of Dallas.

Fine, McDavid wasn’t handicapped having to carry a bunch of house leaguers to the OHL final. Still, the depth of talent that the Soo, and even London, brought to the table out-stripped Erie. And all three teams the Otters have beaten so far this spring run laps around those mowed down by Rimouski in 2005.

Then take this away: Chicoutimi and Halifax ranked as the best teams in the QMJHL in Crosby’s year while the Knights had the league’s sixth-best point total and had a bunch of teams bunched right behind them. This again just bespeaks to the depth of talent in the OHL this season versus a seemingly bereft lot in the Q a decade ago.

I’m not here to bury Crosby. I was in the arena for a couple of dozen of his games in the Q over his two-year career, including six playoff tilts before the Memorial Cup. He was a magical junior player and I was met with skepticism when I suggested that he’d build Hall of Fame bona fides in no time.

What McDavid is doing, though, is even more remarkable even if the Otters go no deeper this spring. I hate to seize on U.S. college sport for an analogy but it begs it: when it comes to strength of schedule the OHL in 2015 is to the QMJHL in ’05 what NCAA Division I is to Division III.

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