EDMONTON — It’s easy to say something can’t be done, that it’s impossible. And nobody heard that over the years more than Wayne Gretzky.
Too small, too slow, too flashy — all Gretzky ever did was re-write the expectations of a sport that suddenly found itself with a player who deviated from every norm that hockey people thought had been established.
Fast forward to 2021: When this 56-game season began, it seemed like heresy to predict that there could be one 100-point player, let alone two. It would take 1.79 points per game, a scoring pace never reached in the salary cap era and attained by only four players in National Hockey League history.
Gretzky was one of those players — he did it an amazing 11 times — and you’re likely not surprised to hear his answer to the question, can it be done again in the 2020-21 season by Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid? Or perhaps even both?
“Those two guys are so special, I think they can,” said Gretzky over the phone on Monday. “How cool is it? It’s so similar to myself and Mark (Messier) in that they have two players, a 1A and a 1A. One is as good as the other. One was an MVP player and renowned as the best player in the world. Then Leon built his own pedigree, and now he’s right there with Connor.
“It’s so unique to have two of the greatest players in the game playing on the same team.”
Some background: Over the past 30 years, only two players not named Gretzky or Mario Lemieux have averaged more than 1.79 points in a season: Adam Oates in 1990-91 (1.89) and Jaromir Jagr in 1995-96 (1.82).
So, the math says it’s a mighty tall order. And so does the Oilers head coach, Dave Tippett.
“The games are going to get tighter in a short schedule,” Tippett opined on Monday “You get a game like (Sunday’s 8-5 win over Ottawa), where we get some bounces early and start thinking like that. But think about how the games are going to go over the last 30 or 40 games. Every game’s going to be like a playoff game. People running around and scoring a bunch of points is probably not going to be the norm.
“They’re phenomenal players and I hope they do it. But I tend to think that the games will tighten up a bit.”
The question boils down to this: Are McDavid and Draisaitl elite enough to re-write what Tippett describes, a.k.a. hockey normalcy? Today they sit atop the NHL scoring race with 22 and 21 points respectively, having scored 50 percent more points than third-place Mitch Marner and Nathan MacKinnon’s 14 points.
The two Oilers have combined for more points (43) than the entire Anaheim Ducks roster (41). And they’ll play three of their next four games against the Ottawa Senators, a below-average team with below-average goaltending.
“In this day and age the defence is better, the coaching is better, the goaltending is better,” marvelled Gretzky. “And those are all positives. But to have 22 points… It’s pretty remarkable, what they’re doing.”
Draisaitl came within an assist of Gretzky’s NHL record, shared with one Billy Taylor — seven assists in a game — when he had six helpers on Sunday. McDavid chipped in five points.
Like Gretzky and Messier, Draisaitl and McDavid play apart at five-on-five, then team up on the power play. They tend to both be good for a five-on-five point most nights, and on a night when the power play heats up, that second point to get past 1.8 per game is usually there for the taking.
Where McDavid is featured on highlight shows for his fantastic goals, Draisaitl’s sublime passing game has become uber-elite — and he is also a 50-goal scorer.
“The thing about Leon is, he’s an unreal passer, but he’s a true goal scorer too,” assessed Gretzky. “When I played with Brett Hull, if I gave him the puck in the slot, it was in the net. Leon gets a chance, it’s in the net.
“Me and Connor — and I’m not trying to compare myself to Connor — we have to work for our goals. Leon is just a natural.”
We just don’t have the history in hockey that says a player in 2021, who tends to win a scoring race while averaging about 1.5 points per game, can suddenly ramp production up by 20 percent. Not with today’s systems, and today’s goaltending, right?
Well, we’re about to find out.
McDavid and Draisaitl are on a jail break. Let’s sit back and watch where it goes.