Connor McDavid (David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Vincent Lecavalier was referred to as "the Michael Jordan of hockey" when he was drafted, but that's nothing compared to the hyperbole that surrounds Connor McDavid these days. Has anyone stopped to ask how realistic all this hype actually is?
To hear the hockey world talk about it, not only will Connor McDavid get the Edmonton Oilers into the playoffs, he’ll win multiple Stanley Cups, find a remedy for climate change and, possibly even find life on other planets.
That is the kind of hype that is following this young man these days. Earlier this season, I was speaking with an NHL GM who was asked (off the record) about McDavid and he said: “You draft a guy hoping he’s going to be an all-star and a great player for a long time. I look at this guy and I’m thinking, ‘He’s going to be a Hall of Famer.’ “
All this before McDavid has taken even a single shift in the NHL. Then there is former Oiler legend Wayne Gretzky, who declared to Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal that McDavid “is the best player to come into the league in the last 30 years,” noting of course that Mario Lemieux came into the league in 1984, which is 31 years ago. In Gretzky’s defense, he did also put Sidney Crosby in that conversation, but basically made the proclamation that McDavid is better than Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Alex Ovechkin and Eric Lindros, the last of whom had 20 more points in 10 more games than McDavid did in his draft year.
Fair enough. We all tend to get caught up in these things when a player as special as McDavid comes along. And so far McDavid has done nothing to suggest that he won’t at least equal what those other great players have done. But then Gretzky went on to say: I hope he brings Edmonton a Stanley Cup and he breaks my records…he’s got the talent and the makeup to do it.”
(Insert record scratch here.)
Whoa. We’re going to have to do a reality check on that one. It’s one thing to say that McDavid is a generational talent who is going to do wonderful things in the NHL for a long time. Gretzky’s proclamation that McDavid, “may be the one player who can get the Oilers over the hump,” is certainly within the realm of possibility. But for the player who set almost every offensive record in the game to predict that McDavid has the "talent and makeup" to break them, to score almost 900 goals and almost 3,000 points and eclipse a single season of 92 goals?
Is McDavid really that great, or is there a chance that we, perhaps, might be getting just a little too caught up in the hype? (And I include myself in that group.) And if we are, is that good for McDavid or the Oilers or anyone else? McDavid may indeed have the talent and makeup to break Gretzky's records, but he doesn't have the environment, and unless the style of play in the NHL changes in a big hurry, it promises to stay that way for a long time. It's not the Dead Puck Era, but it feels like it sometimes.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe Connor McDavid is a very special player who will do great things. Anyone who watched him play as an underage player for the Toronto Marlies minor midget team in 2011-12, as I did many times that season, could tell you that. But here’s the thing: the Marlies did not win the OHL Cup that year, the Mississauga Rebels did and they did so by defeating the Marlies 2-1 in overtime. McDavid had an assist in that game to give him 19 points in the tournament and the MVP Award, but McDavid, even with a lot of other very good players around him, could not do it all by himself.
And that’s where things have to be a little more tempered here. Erie Otters owner Sherry Bassin recently told Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun, “I don’t know if they have words to describe what the Oilers have here.”
Well, let’s give it a shot anyway. The Oilers have a player of otherworldly talent who will make them better. But they also have a player who won’t be able to play defense or goal for them.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that McDavid is as good as Gretzky, Lemieux or Crosby. It’s interesting to note, then, that neither Lemieux nor Crosby could get his team into the playoffs in his first NHL season, and Gretzky could not get his team out of the preliminary round. It took Lemieux seven full seasons before he could lead his team to a Stanley Cup. Gretzky needed six years and while Crosby required only four, he has won just one in 10 years (assuming the Penguins don’t win this season). Before he had won his first Cup, Gretzky had four Hart Trophies, three scoring championships and a Lady Byng. Lemieux had the Calder, one MVP and two scoring titles and Crosby had one Art Ross and one Hart. (And let's say it takes McDavid seven years to win a Cup in Edmonton. That's great, but he'll be eligible to be an unrestricted free agent in Year 8.)
The point is that, as great as these players were, even they did not achieve the ultimate success until they were surrounded by better players. That will almost certainly be the case with McDavid, and it may be a much longer process than McDavid or anyone else is used to experiencing.
So perhaps it’s time to tone down the hype and expectations for a kid who isn’t old enough to legally drink in his home province yet. Just a little.