Connor McDavid puts NHL on notice with goal-scoring frenzy
Connor McDavid is must-see entertainment and not just for hockey fans.
The best player in the world is having such an off-the-charts year that his peers can't help but watch his highlights. The Edmonton Oilers captain has already set career highs with 55 goals and 127 points, and there are still 15 games left in the regular season.
"He’s from a different planet," Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said.
McDavid's latest act has been as a goal-scorer after spending his first seven NHL seasons as more of a playmaker. He's shooting first, asking questions later and making the entire league take notice.
“He's dominating,” Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “He just continues to get better. And as any player, that’s what you want. But when it’s a guy like that, it’s scary.”
Trying to defend McDavid is a scary proposition for opponents, and it has been since he broke into the league in 2015 with his dazzling stick work and blinding speed. He has already won the Hart Trophy as MVP twice and four times took home the Art Ross Trophy for the most points in a season.
McDavid is authoring another MVP-worthy season this time while running away with the goal-scoring title. Much like he focused on improving in the faceoff circle and rounding out his two-way game in previous years, he made a concerted effort to score more himself and surpassed the 50-goal mark for the first time in his career.
“I've never been an elite goal-scorer,” McDavid said. “I’ve kind of always been a pass-first guy. I kind of always said that I take the best available play, but this year I just feel like I’ve been put in some good spots, obviously playing with some good players, and the puck’s going in. I think that’s ultimately just the difference.”
The difference between McDavid and the next-closest scorer, teammate Leon Draisaitl, is 29 points. Boston's David Pastrnak ranks second in the league in goals and he's still nine back of McDavid.
After six mulitgoal games in his last 10, McDavid is on pace for the highest single-season total since the salary cap era began in 2005, surpassing the 65 Ovechkin sored in 2007-08. Ovechkin, who trails only Wayne Gretzky on the career goals list and is 79 away from breaking the record, marvels at what McDavid is doing.
“How he play the game, how he control the puck, how he control the speed, he’s fun to watch,” Ovechkin said. “It’s great that he’s able to show not only one year, but he’s consistently doing that over and over.”
Crosby, himself a two-time MVP and three-time Stanley Cup winner, is impressed by McDavid's eagerness to evolve. Dallas Stars coach Peter DeBoer uses McDavid as an example for young players of how to isolate a weakness and turn into a strength.
“I think that’s a lesson for everybody that this guy just wasn’t touched by the hand of God with talent,” DeBoer said. “He’s worked at it and at his game, at getting better.”
Dylan Strome witnessed McDavid honing aspects of his game when they were junior teammates in Erie, Pennsylvania.
“He’s finding new ways to become more creative,” Strome said. “Sometimes you wonder what more can he do?”
Strome, now playing with Ovechkin in Washington, sees McDavid scoring from different angles, shooting from further away from the net and attempting more one-timers. Some of that came from watching Crosby, reigning MVP Auston Matthews and others, and studying how they shoot the puck.
“So many guys go about it so many different ways," McDavid said. “It’s always a chance to learn, watching other guys."
McDavid is constantly learning and also inspiring some of the NHL's best. Nathan MacKinnon, who was one of the best players on Colorado's Stanley Cup run last year, said McDavid's season makes him want to get better.
“It makes you want to strive for something,” MacKinnon said. "I know I won’t be as good as him no matter how hard I work, but I appreciate what he’s doing and how he does it.”
McDavid envies MacKinnon, Crosby and Ovechkin for what they've done that he has not: won the Cup. Now 26 with a trip to the Western Conference final last season his deepest run so far, he said his focus has always been about the team and called a winning a championship “the ultimate goal — and that’s what we’re building towards.”
Nothing McDavid does in the regular season guarantees playoff success, though carrying the Oilers like MacKinnon did with the Avalanche at times last spring could be his next trick. Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy sees evidence of that in McDavid's production now.
“Just a dominant guy that wants to get his name on the Cup,” Cassidy said. “He’s just focused on, even though it’s regular season, driving that team, pulling that team, putting them on his back.”
On pace for the most points in a season since Mario Lemieux put up 161 in 1995-96, McDavid said he hasn't put much thought into what his scoring total might be. Other players certainly are.
“Every time he’s on the ice he could have one or two goals,” said Florida's Sam Reinhart, a teammate of McDavid's on the 2015 championship Canada world junior team.
Of course, his name etched on a few more individual trophies won't fill the void for McDavid in his quest for the Cup. He's making Edmonton games appointment viewing and would love for that to continue well into June.
“I think everyone’s tuning in to the Oilers games most nights because of how special of a player he is,” Strome said. “Obviously, the next step is winning. He’s doing everything in his power to do that.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press