Connor McDavid provided scouts, fans and NHL GMs with plenty of eureka moments throughout his draft year. But none compared to what he did April 10 in a playoff game against the London Knights.
McDavid calmly, casually assaulted the OHL’s most prestigious franchise with five goals, leading his Erie Otters to a 7-3 victory. He wasn’t the first mega prospect to score five in a playoff game, but the way he did it bugged many eyeballs out of many skulls. It was just so…easy for him. He scored on a laser wrister through a self-designed screen. He blew past three Knights on a 1-on-3 rush to create his own breakaway. He picked a defenseman’s pocket and stuffed home a puck in the blink of an eye. He even scored accidentally when a Knight pokechecked the puck into his own goal, for Pete’s sake.
The performance carved McDavid once and for all into an echelon above Jack Eichel as the surefire No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft. McDavid, by all accounts, is a generational talent, the most hyped player since Sidney Crosby, following in the footsteps of Eric Lindros, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. But how do we know McDavid’s game will translate into NHL superstardom? What evidence can we glean by looking at prior generational talents?
The best expertise comes from those who rubbed shoulders with the greats, so we turned to two of them for help: Hall of Famer and Carolina Hurricanes GM Ron Francis and probable Hall of Famer turned Pittsburgh Penguins player development coach Mark Recchi.
WHAT WE LEARNED IN ROUND 2:
NEW YORK RANGERS: These Broadway Blueshirts are a resilient bunch. They are the first team in NHL history to rally from a 3-1 deficit and win a playoff series two years in a row. They did it in round 2 against the Pittsburgh Penguins last year and again against the Washington Capitals this week. New York didn’t always look like the better team against the Caps but managed to weather countless, hard-forechecking storms and counterattack. New York used its best asset, team speed, to give Washington fits in transition. There was simply no answer for the wheels of Carl Hagelin, Kevin Hayes and especially Chris Kreider late in the series. We also learned in round 2 that, while defensemen Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle can still move the puck with the best of ‘em, neither has held up well battling enemy forwards in the trenches.
TAMPA BAY: The hallmark of a good team, one we’ve picked to win the Stanley Cup, is winning in many different ways, and the Bolts did that in round 2 against Montreal. They relied on mostly great goaltending from Ben Bishop – and a goal that shouldn’t have counted – to win Game 1. They blitzed Carey Price for six goals in Game 2. Despite being a dominant possession team all season, they got badly outchanced and outshot in the middle of the series, yet still walked away with a win in Game 3 with just 19 shots. And, in the clinching Game 6, offensive stars Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov delivered backbreaking goals. The Lightning have won ugly, they’ve won pretty and they’ve won tough. Their blueline also looks as strong as it has all season with Braydon Coburn and Jason Garrison healthy.
Fernando Pisani. Chris Kontos. Ville Leino.
Those names elicited joy from their teams’ fan bases for a few magical months. Now? More like shudders of horror. That trio, along with countless other players, came out of nowhere to dominate in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Now they belong on the Mount Rushmore of guys who created sky-high expectations with spring heroics only to flop over the rest of their careers.
In hindsight, though, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see Pisani, Kontos or Leino fail to translate playoff success into a successful regular season career. I feel for anyone who reached for them in fantasy drafts the following autumns, because we should’ve seen their struggles coming. The warning signs were there.
Not every surprise playoff stud comes back to Earth the next season, though. The key is to know what to look for – the green lights and red lights. When it’s your turn to pick a few months from now, and the 2015 version of Bryan Bickell is in your queue, consider these questions.
HOW THEY WIN
DUCKS: Though it may sound counterintuitive, the Ducks win when players other than Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are scoring. That’s because it’s a given the dynamic duo will produce with regularity. But it takes more than two prolific offensive players to win against the big boys of the NHL. That’s what cost Anaheim in the second round against Los Angeles last spring – a lack of balanced scoring. The addition of Ryan Kesler is a big boost to the second line and Matt Beleskey moved north of 20 goals for the first time, though 12 of them came in the first 26 games of the season. Anaheim has one of the youngest, most mobile bluelines in the league, led by Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm. They’re adept at moving the puck efficiently and are crafty in the offensive zone. They’re also underrated defensively, as is veteran Francois Beauchemin.
JETS: The Jets make for a miserable opponent thanks to their grinding style under coach Paul Maurice. They’re a top-five SAT Close team, consistently the aggressor in generating shot attempts. Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler combine size and scoring touch on the wings, Mark Scheifele continues to develop as a two-way center and Michael Frolik excels in his checking role. The Jets ‘D’ corps, when healthy, is versatile and punishing. Dustin Byfuglien will earn a few Norris Trophy votes after a dominant return from playing forward last season. Towering Tyler Myers looks reborn after arriving from Buffalo in the Evander Kane trade. Jacob Trouba’s offense hasn’t sparkled like it did in his rookie year, but his bruising play suits the playoffs. And hey, goalies Michael Hutchinson and Ondrej Pavelec have both had hot streaks. Who’s to say one won’t in the playoffs? Read more
Chris Kontos. Claude Lemieux. Jean Sebastien-Giguere. Fernando Pisani. Bryan Bickell. Justin Williams. It seems every year some player saves his best hockey for the post-season and becomes his team’s surprise hero. Who has a chance to do the same this year?
I present 10 players to consider. Some are cogs in Cup-contending machines. Others are standout performers with potential to elevate underdog squads.
There are many perks that accompany being a hockey writer, and one of them is knowing that, despite not being invested emotionally in any franchise, you will be accused at one point in time or another of having it out for every NHL franchise. And I can assure you that working at an international publication such as THN only enhances the hilarity as the accusations stream in regularly.
Here at hockey’s magazine of record, we receive angry emails and letters screeching at us for virtually every conceivable bias: for some people, we’re part of the swarthy “Toronto media” and anti-Maple-Leafs; and for others – most of who reside (a) in Canada and (b) outside of Southern Ontario – we’re Leafs-obsessed and sleep under blue-and-white sheets every night; we hear from Americans who’d swear on a stack of hockey bibles we’re stridently cheering for Canadians and anything to do with the “Canadian game”, and we receive input from Canadians furious at our “obviously” blind allegiance to NHL Gary Bettman’s U.S. Sunbelt expansion strategy; we’re blasted by those who think we giddily cover Sidney Crosby’s every sneeze, and we’re ripped from others who think every member of our editorial team rues the day No. 87 became a star and do all they can to slight Crosby at every opportunity.
Much like the modern NHL player cannot absorb a clean-but-fair hit without four of his teammates rushing in to pummel the opponent who (I repeat, cleanly) hit him, many modern hockey fans are hypersensitive to any perceived slight. If you’re including a number of of teams in any positive list and you omit a particular franchise from that list for the sake of a palatable word count, you can rest assured you’ll hear from at least one fan from the omitted team pouting about it. And when you release your predictions for the first round of the NHL playoffs, as I did Sunday afternoon: Read more
As they battle St. Louis and Nashville for top spot in the Central Division, the Chicago Blackhawks dropped a hint of what could be terrific news over the weekend: Head coach Joel Quenneville told reporters he wouldn’t rule out injured star Patrick Kane’s return to action as soon as the first round of the playoffs. Now, that may turn out to be a perfect example of the garden-variety subterfuge coaches and organizations engage in from time to time close to or during the post-season. But if it’s not and Kane is back in the Hawks’ lineup long before doctors’ initial prognosis of late May/early June, everybody getting all excited about the L.A. Kings or New York Rangers as this year’s Stanley Cup champions should temper their expectations as long as Chicago is in the playoffs.
And you know what? Even if Kane can’t come back from a broken clavicle suffered in late February until the second or third round, I still like this Blackhawks team as much as any other team in the league this season. They were my pick to win it all before the season began, and they’re still my pick to win what would be their third championship in six seasons.
You can look at the Hawks and be deeply impressed – intimidated, even – by the winning pedigree of Chicago’s on-ice personnel. However, that’s not the only way they wow you. Read more
We completed our Stanley Cup power rankings for THN’s Playoff Preview magazine a couple weeks ago, and we didn’t devote much air time to the Washington Capitals at our table debates. We slotted the Caps 13th. Their hot-and-cold play wasn’t blowing us away. Amid a pile of wins in February and March, they had letdowns against non-playoff teams Philadelphia (twice) and Dallas.
I tweeted March 3 that the Eastern Conference parity was incredible, and that I could see any of Tampa Bay, the New York Islanders, the New York Rangers, Montreal, Detroit, Boston and Pittsburgh reaching the Stanley Cup final. Apologies for including Pittsburgh in that group – yikes – but that’s not the point. As a reader named Angelos asked: where was Washington? I had deliberately omitted them.
And that looks more like an oversight every day. The Caps have quietly usurped the Pens and Isles to grab the No. 2 seed in the Metropolitan division and look like a darn scary team to face in the post-season. Why?