In the modern era of the NHL,1 93 players have produced seasons with at least 100 adjusted points,2 and only 44 have done so before their age-25 season.3 Just two players have done it at least five times before reaching the ripe old age of 25. One of those players is named Wayne Gretzky — he had six such seasons for the Edmonton Oilers before his silver jubilee, good for top marks — and the other is named Connor McDavid, who also happens to be an Oiler. The NHL loves a wunderkind, and they don’t get any better than the Great One or his modern-day equivalent.
McDavid’s precociousness is hardly news at this point. He’s one of just three Art Ross Trophy recipients — handed out to the league’s top scorer since 1948 — to spend some of his award-winning season as a teenager. The other two are Gretzky — naturally — and Sidney Crosby, the league’s favorite pre-McDavid whiz kid. Indeed, McDavid has been compared to Gretzky and Crosby every step of the way so far in his career, from the minor level to the professional, and his impressive early career form keeps the comparisons rolling right along.
McDavid has already won a Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, and he’s almost certain to win another for his performance this season, which was the sixth-best in adjusted points in the modern era. Hockey-Reference.com’s adjusted points stat rates McDavid’s 2020-21 campaign ahead of Gretzky’s 1981-82 season, in which Gretzky scored 212 unadjusted points, the second-highest single-season points total in league history. McDavid is — how do you say — very good at hockey.
Aside from the GOAT, no players in the league’s modern era have had more individual success early in their careers than McDavid, and only Mario Lemieux — the only other name that regularly crops up in the GOAT conversation — has had a similarly ridiculous season in terms of all-time adjusted points before the age of 25.
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And yet despite all the gaudy regular-season numbers, McDavid’s Oilers have qualified for the postseason in only three of his six seasons,4 winning just one playoff series. They were outlasted in the qualifying round of last season’s deeply weird playoff bubble by an old Chicago Blackhawks team that has lost its dynasty luster in the past several years, and they were summarily dispatched via sweep by the lower-seeded Winnipeg Jets this time around.
Suffice it to say, panic is setting in in Edmonton. For the second time in its history, the franchise has a generational great on its hands. The last time that happened, that player went on to become the greatest to ever do it en route to winning four Stanley Cups before departing for sunny Los Angeles. This time, all the Oilers have to show for their good draft fortune is three underwhelming playoff appearances.
Aside from McDavid’s very good teammate Leon Draisaitl,5 Edmonton’s roster hasn’t exactly been packed with world beaters since his arrival. Even with two of the world’s five best players, Edmonton’s average Elo rating during McDavid’s 18- to 24-year-old seasons is an abysmal 1481. You know who also entered the league with huge expectations and registered a number of all-time great individual seasons before the age of 25 despite underachieving in the playoffs because they were part of imperfect (read: mostly bad) teams? A couple of guys called Lemieux and Alexander Ovechkin.
|Player||Seasons||100+ Adj. Pt. seasons||Playoff Games||Playoff points||Avg. Team Elo|
Lemieux was without question one of the best players in the league (and probably in the history of the league) during his first six seasons, but he played in just 11 playoff games in that time period and won only one series. And Ovechkin, roundly considered among the best goal scorers in the history of the NHL, played in only 28 playoff games from age 20 to 24, also winning just one series. Lemieux went on to win two cups, Ovechkin has so far won one, and they both cemented their statuses as legends of the game.
For all the individual plaudits he’s received since first strapping on skates in Edmonton, McDavid has experienced precious little team success. That said, he could be in worse company than Super Mario and Ovechkin. There’s no doubt about McDavid’s place among the all-time best young players in NHL history. But as his status changes from young player to seasoned veteran, it’s incumbent on Oilers management to build a team around him that can win. It remains to be seen if that’s possible.