Oilers’ McDavid isn’t the first NHL great to endure early team struggles

Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings celebrate with the Stanley Cup. (Tom Pidgeon/AP)

EDMONTON — Four years into Connor McDavid’s career, and just a few days past his 22nd birthday, the Edmonton Oilers find themselves in a herd of Western Conference teams all fighting for the same two wild-card spots.

The Oilers are neither a lock for the playoffs, nor a team that will be favoured to win that first-round matchup against a No. 1 divisional seed should they get there. Heck, it’s ever fair to ask if the team is appreciably better today than the day Peter Chiarelli took over the GM duties back in the spring of 2015, just a few months before he and the Oilers were gifted McDavid in the draft lottery.

All of which leads us to the question: Is Connor McDavid being shorted a chance at success in his young career? Edmonton has seen McDavid’s entry-level contract come and go, and now that’s he’s earning $12.5 million, it gets that much tougher to surround him with a roster than is Stanley Cup-worthy.

Are the Oilers wasting him?

So far McDavid, the first-overall draft pick in the 2015 draft, has one playoff appearance in three seasons, when Edmonton went two rounds in 2017. But under Chiarelli it has been mostly downhill from there, with a fired coach and now a GM in limbo — all while the best young player in the sport wins Art Ross trophies on a team that struggles to finish Top 8 out West.

Is McDavid hard done by? Well, here’s a look at the career paths of five other superstars. So far, McDavid has little to complain about by comparison. But if the Oilers futility continues…

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Wayne Gretzky

Gretzky’s Oilers never once missed the playoffs during his 10 seasons there, reaching the Stanley Cup for the first time in 1983, Year 5 in the NHL for Gretzky. They would win the Cup in ’84, ’85, ’87 and ’88, giving Gretzky five Cup appearances and four rings in a decade in Edmonton before being sold to the Los Angeles Kings by owner Peter Pocklington. He would enjoy one more trip to a Cup Final in 1993, where the Kings lost to the Montreal Canadiens.

Steve Yzerman

Yzerman’s first NHL season was 1983-84, after being chosen fourth overall by Detroit in ‘83. The Red Wings went to the Campbell Conference Final in his fourth season, and made the second round in his ninth season. The rest of the time they were mostly first-round fodder. Yzerman was 12 seasons into his career when the Red Wings became a team that was ready to challenge for a Stanley Cup. They lost that season (1994-95) in the Cup Final to New Jersey, but would win the Stanley Cup in ’97, ’98 and 2002 — NHL seasons No. 14, 15 and 19 for Yzerman.

Mario Lemieux

The first-overall pick in 1984, Lemieux did not play a playoff game until the spring of ’89 and missed the post-season in five of his first six seasons. In 1991 and ’92 — season Nos. 7 and 8 for Mario, the Penguins won the only Stanley Cups that he would play in.

Eric Lindros

Lindros went first overall to Quebec in ’91, but never played a game there before moving to Philadelphia in a trade. As a Flyer he missed the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, then made it for five of his last six seasons — reaching the 1997 Final only to be swept by Detroit. That was the highlight of a truncated career that would see Lindros play just 53 playoff games, ending with a single Cup appearance and zero rings.

Sidney Crosby

The first-overall pick in 2005 — awarded to Pittsburgh in a league-wide lottery after the lockout season — Crosby’s Penguins missed the playoffs in his rookie season. They would make the playoffs in every season of his career after that, taking Crosby to a Stanley Cup Final in his third season (2008) when he would lose to the Red Wings. The next season, Crosby’s fourth, Pittsburgh won the Cup, and they would win back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017, giving Crosby three rings and four appearances in the first dozen years of his NHL career.

For now, McDavid has little to complain about in comparison to players like Lemieux and Yzerman. You can point to the cap jail that Chiarelli has imposed on the Oilers, but you could also mention assistant GM Keith Gretzky and the Oilers drafting improving immensely. So the cavalry could be coming.

Of course, Oilers fans have heard that for years. Somehow, those horses never quite come over the horizon in Edmonton.

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