Connor McDavid on familiar path that could see 50 goals
By Stephen Whyno
AP Hockey Writer
On the eve of skating in his 500th regular-season NHL game, Connor McDavid marveled at how Sidney Crosby has maintained a high level of play for more than twice that long.
“Just the longevity of it,” the Edmonton Oilers captain said. “You look at a guy like Sid, who I think has changed his game a little bit here and there a few times over, it’s so incredible to see.”
And familiar. McDavid is a much different player 500-plus games into his career than he was seven years ago when he made his debut. He is arguably the best player in the world after following a Crosby-like blueprint of isolating individual weaknesses and turning them into strengths.
“I’d like to think I’m a more responsible player, probably not as reckless as I was at 18 years old,” said McDavid, who will turn 26 in January. “I play the game a little bit different, but you have to adapt in the NHL otherwise you don’t go very far.”
Only five players in league history have put up more points through 500 games than McDavid’s 724 and the list does not include Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and other elite players.
He again leads the NHL in points a quarter of the way through the season with 39 in 22 games, and McDavid’s next trick could be scoring 50 goals in a season for the first time. Before training camp he said that would be nice but pale in comparison to team success.
“Numbers, really, at this point, I’ve kind of been there and done that,” McDavid said. “I’ve won my Art Rosses and Hart trophies and that stuff’s all kind of a moot point.”
McDavid has won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer four times and Hart as MVP twice. The furthest he and the Oilers have advanced in the the playoffs was last season, when they reached the Western Conference Final before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Colorado Avalanche.
Edmonton needs more than just McDavid and longtime running mate Leon Draisaitl to make another deep run. But if the storied franchise is going to hang a sixth Cup banner from the rafters, McDavid’s evolution will be a big reason for it.
After winning just 41.2% of his faceoffs in his rookie year, McDavid has steadily improved in the circle to the point he’s now in the top 25 players in the league in that category. He had 89 giveaways in 2018-19 and has not approached that number since. And he has become a serviceable penalty killer.
“I think there is evolving his personal game,” coach Jay Woodcroft said. “I see a 200-foot player, I see a lot of defensive details in his game and I see someone who has adapted offensively. He doesn’t just resort to doing the same thing day in and day out, year in and year out.”
All that after entering the NHL with the pressure of not only being the top pick in the 2015 draft but called hockey’s “Next One” as a generational talent expected to follow in Crosby’s skate tracks.
Teammate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 pick in 2011, knows what that feels like.
“You try to just forget about that when you go out there and play and do what you can to just be a hockey player,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “Also, you’re a kid coming in and you want to have fun, you want to enjoy yourself, and that helps a lot when you’re having fun.”
McDavid was immediately the face of the franchise and soon after the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 266 days old. He credits now-retired winger Matt Hendricks for helping him evolve as a leader, another area of his development.
“I don’t think gets enough credit on the leadership side of things,” Woodcroft said. “For Connor, it’s not just about setting an example, it’s also holding the team to a certain standard and holding people accountable to that standard.”
McDavid’s only desire at this point is to win the Cup, which Crosby did in his fourth season and has added two more since with Pittsburgh.
There’s still plenty to marvel about when it comes to McDavid. Fellow Edmonton forward Devin Shore thinks it’s the combination of McDavid’s skating, vision, shot, hands and brain that sets him apart.
“There’s probably no one else in the league that can play that style,” Shore said. “He’s playing against other teams’ best players every night, and he finds a way to get it done. It’s so far from a one-off. He’s the best player on the ice every night, so it’s really impressive.”