This is something of a golden era for the game of hockey. More and more players from around the world are picking up the game, new talents and ideas being added to the very lexicon of the sport. Sometimes, in Canada, a sense of insecurity, an identity crisis of sorts, can loom. Are “we” still “the best” at hockey? With a national identity so tied up in a sport such concerns are to be expected, as they have been since at least the 1972 Summit Series.
Ultimately, though, this pseudo competitiveness is misplaced. Instead the focus should be on how fantastic the growth of the game itself is. Hockey has always been a collaboration between the various peoples that play it, from the earliest hockey sticks and skates being invented by Indigenous peoples, specifically the Mi’kmaq, Irish settlers adapting the Gaelic sport of Hurling to ice, the Coloured Hockey League in Nova Scotia revolutionising the game with slap shots and goalies being able to go down, even to Jacques Plante inventing the goalie mask after having one too many shots to the face. Sport is a performance art, and hockey is a game built on this collaborative spirit.
Modern day hockey breeds talent
These days the sport is blossoming in its own ways from grassroots leagues to online forums, and even at the NHL level these advancements are evident. Players from other countries are becoming top draft picks more often, raising the level of skill in the league. Rule changes and technologies have aided in this respect as well, as a generation of players have begun entering the league that have grown up with one piece sticks, not to mention a decreased focus on physicality, if not violence, instead prioritising speed and skill.
As such, young players continue to push the boundaries of what we think is possible on the ice. Brilliant and bold, new dekes, lacrosse style goals, lightning quick puck handling, between the legs shots, are all adding new flavours and possibilities. Even outside of the NHL, the marks of supremely talented individuals are being felt. Nela Lopusanova and Connor Bedard being top of mind as teenagers shattering expectations left and right. In all, it is an extremely exciting time to be a hockey fan.
However, amidst all of these advancements stands the best player in the world, and by quite some margin at that: the Edmonton Oilers own Connor McDavid. The sheer attrition of the NHL is enough on its own, let alone the enormous expectations that McDavid has continued to earn since his early teens, looming impossibly large over every season as an individual. Somehow McDavid has done nothing but surpass every wildest hope each season, continuing to improve on his already legendary talent.
McDavid is beyond statistical greatness
Headed into this season there was some buzz around McDavid’s potential to score 50 goals, a feat he had yet to accomplish. There were many great thought pieces in how it might be possible, extrapolating shots per game and shooting percentages to try to best rationalise or quantify the ability to reach the milestone reserved for only the best goal scorers. It is beyond the realms of reason that we find ourselves, now with McDavid sitting at 54 goals with 17 games remaining on the season, ten ahead of David Pastrnak and the field of the world’s top snipers. 60 goals seems inevitable, 70 goals seems likely, as absurd as that sounds.
From a statistical standpoint McDavid is an outlier, an absurd volume of production unseen since the likes of Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky. In a comfortable lead to secure his fifth Art Ross Trophy, tying him with Jaromir Jagr and Phil Esposito, behind only the pantheon of Gretzky (10), Lemieux (6), and Gordie Howe (6).
|Season||Point Gap||Winner (points)||Runner up (points)|
|1980–81||29||W. Gretzky (164)||M. Dionne (135)|
|1981–82||65||W. Gretzky (212)||M. Bossy (147)|
|1982–83||72||W. Gretzky (196)||P. Stastny (124)|
|1893–84||79||W. Gretzky (205)||P. Coffey (126)|
|1984–85||73||W. Gretzky (208)||J. Kurri (135)|
|1985–86||74||W. Gretzky (215)||M. Lemiuex (141)|
|1986–87||75||W. Gretzky (183)||J. Kurri (108)|
|1987–88||19||M. Lemieux (168)||W. Gretzky (149)|
|1988–89||31||M. Lemieux (199)||W. Gretzky (168)|
|1989-90||13||W. Gretzky (142)||M. Messier (129)|
|1990-91||32||W. Gretzky (163)||B. Hull (131)|
|1991–92||8||M. Lemieux (131)||K. Stevens (123)|
|1992–93||12||M. Lemieux (160)||P. LaFontaine (148)|
|1993–94||10||W. Gretzky (130)||S. Federov (120)|
|1994–95 (shortened)||0||J. Jagr (70)||E. Lindros (70)|
|1995–96||12||M. Lemieux (161)||J. Jagr (149)|
|1996–97||13||M. Lemieux (122)||T. Selanne (109)|
|1997–98||11||J. Jagr (102)||P. Forsberg (91)|
|1998–99||20||J. Jagr (127)||T. Selanee (107)|
|1999–2000||2||J. Jagr (96)||P. Bure (94)|
|2000–01||3||J. Jagr (121)||J. Sakic (118)|
|2001–02||6||J. Iginla (96)||M. Naslund (90)|
|2002–03||2||P. Forsberg (106)||M. Naslund (104)|
|2003–04||7||M. St. Louis (94)||I. Kovalchuk (87)|
|2005–06||2||J. Thornton (125)||J. Jagr (123)|
|2006–07||6||S. Crosby (120)||J. Thornton (114)|
|2007–08||6||A. Ovechkin (112)||E. Malkin (106)|
|2008–09||3||E. Malkin (113)||A. Ovechkin (110)|
|2009–10||3||H. Sedin (112)||S. Crosby (109)|
|2010–11||5||D. Sedin (104)||M. St. Louis (99)|
|2011–12||12||E. Malkin (109)||S. Stamkos (97)|
|2012–13 (shortened)||3||M. St. Louis (60)||S. Stamkos (57)|
|2013–14||17||S. Crosby (104)||R. Getzlaf (87)|
|2014–15||1||J. Benn (87)||J. Tavares (86)|
|2015–16||17||P. Kane (106)||J. Benn (89)|
|2016–17||11||C. McDavid (100)||S. Crosby (89)|
|2017–18||6||C. McDavid (108)||C. Giroux (102)|
|2018–19||12||N. Kucherov (128)||C. McDavid (116)|
|2019–20||13||L. Draisaitl (110)||C. McDavid (97)|
|2020–21||8||C. McDavid (123)||J. Gaudreau (115)|
|2021–22||21||C. McDavid (105)||L. Draisaitl (84)|
|2022–23 (65 games)||28||C. McDavid (124)||L. Draisaitl (96)|
|2022–23 (pace)||34||C. McDavid (156)||L. Draisaitl (122)|
From taking a look at the history of Art Ross winners a multitude of observations are apparent. No player has hit the 130-point mark since Lemieux did it in 1995–96, and McDavid with 124 points is already on pace for 156.
Only one non-Gretzky player has ever cleared 2nd by more than 30 points, Mario Lemieux, who accomplished this once in 88/89. In short, numerically, empirically, what McDavid is accomplishing this season is surpassed only by Gretzky in his prime. What’s more is that taking into consideration how far the sport and the league has come since the 1980s only serves to make what McDavid is doing more impressive. Winning his 5th Art Ross puts him in the top 5, getting to 7, otherwise known as alone for 2nd most all time (Gretzky) is likely the benchmark for legitimate conversations about McDavid being better than Gretzky outright.
McDavid has won a lot of scoring titles already, but the degree in which he is winning them is becoming more heavy handed. Last season was the first time since 1998–99 that the gap between the Art Ross winner and the runner up was 20 or more points, and the biggest gap since the Great One himself had a 32-point gap in the 1990-91 season. This season McDavid is on pace to clear runner up and teammate Leon Draisaitl by 34 points, and on pace to clear the highest scoring non-teammate in the league, Nikita Kucherov, by 41 points.
Eventually Father Time will come for us all, McDavid will not improve in perpetuity. Despite this, the 26-year-old forward is still improving, in both goal totals and point totals, yes, but also in his overall impact on the game, logging regular penalty killing duties this season. Down the stretch of the last regular season we saw an increased physicality and defensive intensity from McDavid, something that we should expect to start seeing more of as winter fades into spring. Much in the way that we have seen Sidney Crosby morph into a dominant two way force, earning Selke votes for best defensive forward in the process, it should be expected that McDavid will continue to have a greater defensive impact, even (or perhaps especially) as his offensive totals wane. It is safe to say that this metamorphosis is underway already, as the foundations of Selke candidates are often built over many seasons.
Does McDavid have the support?
The two accolades that McDavid will need to be considered the greatest of all time will be the most out of his control. The lack of any best-on-best international tournaments certainly does not help him, as does his lack of Stanley Cups. Ideally there is still time for McDavid to win one of each, which will go a long way in solidifying his candidacy.
Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, the importance of this season comes into clearer focus. Yes, the scoring titles for goals and points are in comfortable spots for McDavid, but the Oilers team success is the foremost task at hand. It has not been fast, easy, or a straight line, but the Oilers have continued to show improvements under GM Ken Holland. The blueline is the best it has been since Chris Pronger was briefly patrolling, now well balanced between offensive and defensive abilities, physical and skilled. What’s more is that the young talents of Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg are still coming into their own, helping any projection of the future look quite bright. For the first time in the cap era the Oilers are a legitimately strong team outside of McDavid’s talents, with a multitude of top line talent up front as well.
Goaltending is the biggest issue at this point, with Jack Campbell struggling as much as he has all season. Campbell’s contract might be difficult, or at least interesting to navigate going forward, but with Stuart Skinner signed long term to a fantastic deal the situation might be tenable overall. In short, the Oilers might finally be strong enough to give McDavid a real chance at carrying them all the way.