Connor McDavid creating time and space like Wayne Gretzky used to

NHL analyst Mark Spector says Jesse Puljujarvi is not at all out of place in the NHL this season, says he's going to be the guy playing with McDavid for a long time to come.

It’s not fair to compare Connor McDavid to Wayne Gretzky. Right?

I mean, let’s be serious here…

Well, that holds true only until McDavid starts doing Gretzkian things. After that, it is kind of fun to compare the way Gretzky was able to buy room back in the ’80s, compared to the methods McDavid has found to make enough time and space to become the league’s leading scorer at the quarter mark of the season.

“My favourite guy in the league, from the young guys,” smiled Chicago veteran Marian Hossa, whose first NHL game came as McDavid was still in diapers, not yet 10 months old. “Driving with the puck, doing everything full speed…

“Not many hockey players, when I watch them, do I go, ‘Wow.’ But this kid? He’s something special. Fun to watch.”

Long before the term “gap” — the space between a defenceman and the oncoming, puck-carrying forward — was part of the hockey lexicon, Gretzky had found a way to mess with it.

He would come down the right-wing boards, cross the blue line shading to his left, and as the defenceman slowed to decrease the gap between him and No. 99, Gretzky would spin right and do his patented loop just inside the blue line. When Gretzky emerged from his loop, he had created time and space between him and the defender — the dual weapon of every great hockey player.

Try that loop today, and Gretzky would be hospitalized by a back-checking winger. Back pressure didn’t exist when the Edmonton Oilers were last winning Stanley Cups, so if McDavid is going to find the necessary time and space to win a Cup for himself, he’ll have to create it by speeding the game up, not slowing it down the way The Great One did.

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“It’s for sure his speed,” said sometimes linemate Jordan Eberle, when asked what McDavid’s greatest asset is. “It is unmatched in the league. I don’t know how he does it — they should figure it out and teach kids how to do it. But he’s a rush player. He creates everything off the rush with his speed, and as a defenceman you can’t gap up.”

In only 20 games this season we have seen McDavid successfully go wide on D-men the caliber of Mark Giordano, while Tuesday night in Edmonton, Blackhawks defenceman Brent Seabrook just turned and skated forwards towards his own net at one point, rather than try to match up with McDavid while skating backwards.

“In today’s game, defencemen challenge you at the blue line and play you north-south,” Eberle said. “Connor has just exposed that with his speed. He just blows right by them.”

The consensus is, defencemen would rather relinquish position in the neutral zone than challenge him there and watch him blow past for a breakaway. Either way, McDavid ends up with the two tools that every great player exploits: time and space.

As for McDavid, who leads the league with 24 points (eight goals), you’ll no sooner get him into a conversation on his ridiculous foot speed than you would on U.S. politics. He has passed through his first 20 games as an NHL captain now — his NHL career is just 65 games old in total — and he’ll tell you his biggest improvement has come at the other end of the rink.

“The defensive side,” he said. “When I first came in the league I was blowing the zone all the time. Just kind of expecting pucks to get out. You learn very quickly that you can’t be doing that.

“You learn the most in our early days. I’ve definitely learned a lot. I feel like I’m a little smarter player than when I first entered the league.”

On Monday he battled the great Chicago centre Jonathan Toews for much of the night in a 5-0 Oilers win, finishing with two assists. They played nearly identical ice time — 18:42 for McDavid, 18:26 for Toews — and more than once McDavid succeeded on blocking Toews’ route off the boards to the net front, a path he beats on a nightly basis around the NHL.

“He plays a man’s game,” McDavid said. “If you’re going to want to stop him in your own end, you’re going to have to step up and battle with him. Same in the other end. He’s probably one of the most complete players there is in this game. I can definitely take some things from watching him play.”

This is a Western Conference tete a tete we might see in May or June, one day down the road. On this night in November however, McDavid at least proved he is in Toews’ ballpark, though he has much to prove before McDavid’s overall game can be compared to Jonny Toews.

“He’s relentless, all over the ice. Offensively, defensively, on the draws… He’s definitely a hard guy to play against,” said McDavid. “I got dominated in the circle (29%), so that’s something to work on for sure.”

After the game, Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville gave rare praise to an opponent, when asked what he thought of his first live sighting of McDavid as an opponent.

“The McDavid kid is special,” nodded Quenneville. “He absorbs a lot of attention, and has good play recognition. He can change the situation rather quickly.”

So could another guy who played in Edmonton once, a long, long time ago.

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