The next order of business for Connor McDavid is a Stanley Cup. But when?
Connor McDavid is easily the best player in the NHL. It’s no longer close, as his historic 2020-21 season attests. He’s been so dominant this year on the attack that only two other players in league history, Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe, have ever outscored the next group of top NHL scorers by a greater margin, according to research by Daryn Duliba.
In the past, the game’s most dominant scorers have always been able to lead their teams to Cup wins, even if it takes awhile for them and their team to get there.
Brian Lawton, easily one of the sharpest commentators in the NHL, compared McDavid’s game to that of LeBron James and Tom Brady in football. “Those guys are winning championships,” Lawton told Bob Stauffer on Oilers Now. “That should be the next step for Connor McDavid because there’s really nobody else in other sports, outside of those names, that are as dominant as he is. I actually think his gap between the rest is as large as anybody has been in a very long time.
“Connor McDavid deserves, I believe, to be talked about with athletes of that ilk. Now he has to win championships and that should start to happen at some point certainly anywhere from this season to the next three seasons.”
Of course, it’s no slam dunk for McDavid to win a championship, in part because no hockey player dominates the game like an NBA supertstar, who plays almost all of every game and touches the ball almost every offensive sequence, or even an NFL quarterback, who also dominates play because he touches the ball every offensive sequence.
Then there’s the challenge of increased competition, which every modern player now faces in the major North American sports. There’s far more teams now than in the past. The NHL is no longer a four-team league, as it was in Howie Morenz’s time, a six-team league, as it was in Gordie Howe’s day, a 12-team league, as it was when Bobby Orr played, or even a 21 team league, as it was in the day of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. It’s also the case that salary cap constraints and other changes in both limiting and allowing player movement have made it more difficult to assemble and keep together great teams in the NHL.
I wonder if the Chicago Blackhawks, for example, might have won one or two more Stanley Cups between 2010 and 2017 if they had been able to keep all their talent and to spend more freely.
Hockey Database lists player ages for a particular season as their age as of September of that year, with this being McDavid’s 23-year-old season (though he is 24 now). Many of the greatest NHL superstars won Cups at earlier ages, Stan Mikita and Guy Lafleur in their 20-year-old seasons, Howie Morenz, Sidney Crosby, Bobby Orr, and Bobby Hull, 21, Maurice Richard, Wayne Gretzky, 22. Gordie Howe was in his 23-year-old season when he led his Detroit Red Wings to his first Stanley Cup final and victory, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Clarke, 24, and Eddie Shore, 25.
Almost all of the greatest of the greats were on more dominant teams than the Oilers are now. If the Oilers get a point on Saturday against Vancouver, they will finish 10th out of 31 NHL teams this year. But most of these superstars in their first Cup-winning years were on teams that finished first or second in the league, including Wayne Gretzky and his 1983-84 Oilers, which was first out of 21 teams.
Some superstars have won their first Stanley Cup leading less dominant teams to victory, such as Mario Lemieux in 1991. His Penguins finished just seventh out of 21 teams. In 2009, Crosby’s Penguins finished ninth out of 30 teams. And in 1961, Mikita and Hull’s Blackhawks finished just third out of six teams.
As for McDavid, his team and its cult of faithful fans, the tension and the joy are in the team’s pursuit of excellence and Stanley Cup glory. There are signals that the Oilers are getting close, with the window now open enough to hope.
As the astute Lawton suggests, this year and the next three seasons are McDavid’s prime time for winning a Stanley Cup.
We are go.