EDMONTON — Over his seven NHL seasons, we have gasped in amazement as Connor McDavid skated like a young Pavel Bure, or controlled the flow of an NHL game like Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux once did.
We’ve borne witness as his game has matured the way Steve Yzerman’s and Sidney Crosby’s evolved long ago, coming to a crescendo these past few months, as McDavid blazed down the stretch of his 25-year-old season.
That’s right, at age 25, McDavid is playing the best hockey of his life in this very moment, a statement we do not make lightly. As great as he has been so far, stand back, folks — this is a generational player who is entering his prime years right before our eyes.
McDavid, at 25 years old in 2022, is a 21-year-old Wayne Gretzky in the fall of ‘81. He’s a 22-year-old Gordie Howe in 1950.
But as the undisputed best player in the game today enters his peak performance years, there is one Hall of Famer that I never would have thought he’d resemble: Mark Messier.
But there was McDavid early in Game 2, running defenceman Mikey Anderson through the boards from behind, an immediate look of guilt on his face that Messier would never have let slip. In Messier’s day that hit was de rigueur. Today it’s a borderline major that was called a minor in Game 2, a penalty every teammate is absolutely fine with killing off.
“When your leader goes out and he’s banging bodies, it’s easy for everyone else to do it, too,” said goalie Mike Smith. “When your Cap’s throwin’ his weight around a little bit, it kind of just pulls everyone into the fight.
“It’s playoff hockey.”
As the game wore on, there was McDavid, steamrolling Alex Iafallo, and using his speed to punish — you read that right: “punish” — a small and inexperienced Kings defence corps, one that Edmonton has clearly targeted as the weakness they will exploit for the remainder of this series.
It is, amazingly, yet another layer of his game that McDavid has uncovered.
He is an onion, isn’t he? Just when you think he can’t get any better, there’s another layer that leaves somebody crying.
Look, Connor McDavid is never going to be Eric Lindros when it comes to physicality. But as we watched him tune in Kings defencemen on Wednesday night, it brought to bear how far his overall game has come.
For his first six seasons in Edmonton, McDavid put up 1.41 points per game and went a collective plus-64. He helped the Oilers win games 5-4, but there weren’t enough of those available as the stretch run arrived, and they couldn’t win 3-2 when it counted. Edmonton played 21 playoff games over that span, winning one playoff round over his first six seasons.
This season, McDavid produced a career high 1.54 points per game. However, career highs in plus-minus (plus-28), faceoff percentage (53.7), and even-strength goals differential (plus-31) perhaps tell the story of where his game has gone.
Sure, he set career highs in goals (44) assists (79) and points (123). That is obvious improvement, and that his career-high offence has arrived in his best defensive season affirms what the coaches always say about good defence providing offensive opportunity.
But this season, McDavid also set career marks in hits and hits taken, which tells you he’s spending more time in the areas of the ice where hits happen. Down low in the defensive zone. In all four corners of the rink. Along the walls — all battle stations of our sport, where players start and stop rather than loop and turn.
Where it can hurt to succeed, and perhaps the only place on the ice where a player like McDavid can find himself at a disadvantage, playing out of his comfort zone against bigger, stronger opponents.
For the fancy stats set, McDavid’s Corsi (62.38%), Fenwick (62.09%), shots for (62.43%) and high-danger goals (72.03%) numbers were all career highs this season. Thanks, Natural Stat Trick.
So, how did we get here?
Well, McDavid has clearly made it a mission to round out his game. But it did not come as easy as you’d think.
He was muddling along at plus-5 when Dave Tippett was fired on April 10, his team still playing that risky, high-octane style that runs out of gas some time in mid-March in the NHL.
“You’ve got to keep the puck out of your net. We HAVE to figure out a way,” said an exasperated Oilers general manager Ken Holland that day. He had watched his team get outscored 8-1 in two games coming out of the All-Star break, then fired a coach mid-season for the first time in his 25 years as a manager. “You can’t win 5-4. We won lots of games in the first (quarter), we were scoring five goals to win. So … hopefully a different voice. We’re all saying the same message…”
The Oilers captain has been plus-23 in the 37 games since. Some of that is head coach Jay Woodcroft’s new structure, but to me, more of the credit goes to a captain who is leading his teammates down a path the organization knows it needs to travel.
Today, McDavid is a human zone entry on the power play. A unit that never struggles to set up shop gets more zone time to wear down the opponent’s penalty kill, because McDavid brings the puck into the zone like a hot knife through butter.
His puck management has grown by light years. Risks are saved for when you’re trailing in the third period — not in a tie game or a game the Oilers are leading.
Quietly, McDavid has been carrying Jesse Puljujarvi without visible complaint, the kind of thing a true leader does. It has cost McDavid points, but long-term, if Puljujarvi figures things out it will be better for the team.
And in Game 1, with the Oilers playing like the weight of the world was on their shoulders, McDavid’s solo effort right before the first intermission put his team and its fans right back in the game. He can still do that too, remember, blazing through the Kings on a solo rush that elicits video game references.
McDavid has only had four regular season games in a 487-game career where he’s been credited with four hits. He posted that number in both Games 1 and 2 versus the Kings.
Engaged? Oh, he’s engaged.
This is it, folks. A great player entering his greatest seasons.
Sit back and enjoy it. You’ll tell your grandchildren about this one day.