In the roughly seven decades since the NHL started handing out the Art Ross trophy to the league’s top scorer, only three recipients have spent at least some of an award-winning season as a teenager. Two of those players are on the short list of all-time best: Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby. The other? This season’s winner: Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers.
McDavid was impressive as a rookie last season, but 2016-17 was when he announced his official superstardom to the world. In addition to leading the NHL in points, he was the league’s best at generating quality scoring chances. And although McDavid has been held to 2 points in the Oilers’ four first-round playoff games against the San Jose Sharks, the series is tied, and McDavid is driving possession the way he did during the regular season. Plus, he’ll probably be honored as the most valuable player in the game regardless of how his postseason goes.
McDavid’s rise to the top of the NHL is hardly unexpected — as a child in Newmarket, Ontario, he was already being compared to Gretzky and Crosby. Comparisons with legends bring loads of pressure and expectations, and assuming that an 18-year-old who’s only played against other teenagers will turn into an all-time great is almost always silly.1 But even the most optimistic hockey fan might be astonished by how valid McDavid has made those analogies look, and how quickly he’s done so.
To say a great deal of hype surrounded McDavid as a youngster would be an understatement. In 2012, Hockey Canada waived its normal eligibility rules — which dictate that players can’t suit up at the major junior level until they’re 16-years-old — and allowed McDavid to enter the Ontario Hockey League draft at age 15. It wasn’t long before McDavid was torching the best junior-level competition in the world: In his three OHL seasons, he scored 285 points, or 1.7 per game. By the time his junior career was over, McDavid had won the most individual silverware in the history of the OHL.
In his first two NHL seasons — the first of which was cut short because of an upper body injury that gave the entire city of Edmonton a brief, but acute, panic attack — McDavid scored 148 points over just 127 games.
How does that compare with the legendary company McDavid is often mentioned in? Crosby’s scoring rate through his first 127 games was a bit higher than McDavid’s — he tallied 181 points — but there are also a few factors at play that put McDavid at a disadvantage in terms of raw numbers. After adjusting for those, McDavid ends up looking very similar to Sid the Kid.
For one thing, Crosby’s first two seasons (2005-06 and 2006-07) were also the two highest-scoring NHL campaigns since the 2004-05 lockout. During those two seasons, teams averaged 9 percent more goals per game than in the two years since McDavid entered the league. 2007 might not seem like very long ago, but the game has changed. And part of the scoring gulf between then and now can be explained by a huge disparity in power play opportunities: In 2005-06, teams played with the man advantage a whopping 5.85 times per game on average. This season, that number was 2.99. (Theories abound as to why.)
That matters for scoring: In his first two seasons, Crosby scored 108 of his 222 points (49 percent) on the power play. By comparison, McDavid has scored just 41 of his 148 points (28 percent) on the power play. If Crosby took advantage of whistle-happy referees, McDavid hasn’t had that luxury. Taking into account shorthanded stats as well, McDavid has scored 71 percent of his points at even strength. Crosby, by comparison, scored just 50 percent of the points in his first two seasons while playing at even strength. Because the vast majority of the game is played at even strength, points scored when teams are playing at five on five are arguably more valuable than contributions on special teams.
Crosby also benefited from inferior goaltending during his first couple of seasons, relative to what McDavid has faced. According to save percentage — a good benchmark for goaltending performance — netminders were 11 points worse across the league during Crosby’s first two years than they have been during McDavid’s. From 2005-06 to 2006-07, the league’s average save percentage was .903; from 2015-16 to 2016-17, it’s .914.
Add it all up, and after adjusting for the league’s scoring environment, Crosby’s 33-point lead in the raw stats gets cut roughly in half: Crosby had 179 adjusted points in his first 127 games; McDavid had 164.2
As for Gretzky … well, he notched an insane 240 points per 127 games in his first two seasons,3 although it’s worth noting that Gretzky built his case as the undisputed GOAT in an NHL that barely resembles today’s league. McDavid could be the second coming of the Great One, and he’d never have a chance to touch Gretzky’s raw production. But if we run the same adjusted scoring formula as above for Gretzky’s first two seasons, he produced 190 adjusted points per 127 games in his first pair of NHL seasons — 26 more than McDavid and 11 more than Crosby. (This just in: Gretzky was amazing.)
So McDavid may be running a bit behind the Great One, but he’s pretty close to Crosby’s level. None of this is to say McDavid is guaranteed to match what Crosby has accomplished; Sid the Kid is probably still the best player in the world (at least according to that Gretzky guy) and is one of the best players to ever take the ice. But when you consider that McDavid is performing roughly as well as Crosby was at the same stage of his career, you get the sense that we’re all lucky to witness his ascent.
Of course, while McDavid has asserted himself as one the game’s most prolific scorers, that doesn’t mean Edmonton fans should expect immediate returns in the form of a Stanley Cup. Gretzky himself didn’t lead the Oilers to a championship until his fifth NHL season (those early-1980s New York Islanders teams were notoriously tough to beat), and Crosby didn’t deliver a Cup to Pittsburgh until his fourth season. But with his Art Ross season, McDavid is already living up to the hype on an individual level, and the Oilers seem to have found the franchise cornerstone they’ve been looking for since Gretzky left town for sunny Los Angeles.
So even if this season doesn’t end with a parade through Edmonton, the future looks exceedingly bright for the Oilers — and their boy wonder.