SIMMONS: McDavid all alone at top of NHL and everyone knows it

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FORT LAUDERDALE — Every time Nathan MacKinnon watches Connor McDavid play, a certain thought comes to mind.

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“How inspiring he is,” said the Stanley Cup champion MacKinnon. “It’s inspiring to see someone be that great. It makes you want to get better. That’s how I feel when I see him. It makes you want to strive for something.

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“Greatness in any sport is special, for me, it’s awesome to see. It’s really cool. 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.”

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They are sitting a few podiums apart just off the Florida beach on Media Day at the NHL All-Star weekend, with the sun shining, the sky blue and the great MacKinnon not far from the even greater McDavid, and at almost every stop where the players sit and informally talk — as much as hockey players ever informally speak — there is praise and more praise for McDavid.

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He isn’t simply the face of today’s NHL. He’s the talk of every town and every team. And the talk of so many of the all-stars here, There may be no absolute, certain best player in the NBA today, best player in the NFL, best player in Major League Baseball, but there is no question as to who the best player in hockey is. For the first time in a long time — even Wayne Gretzky had years where he was in competition with Mario Lemieux — there is McDavid and there is no one else.

“He’s from a different planet,” said Alexander Ovechkin, himself chasing Gretzky’s all-time goal-scoring record. “How he plays the game. How he controls the puck. He controls his speed. He’s very fun to watch.

“It’s not one player and one year. He’s consistently doing it. Every year. It’s cool to see. It’s great for us. It’s great for fans. It’s great for the kids.”

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Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers speaks to the media during 2023 NHL All-Star Media Day at FLA Live Arena on February 2, 2023 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)
Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers speaks to the media during 2023 NHL All-Star Media Day at FLA Live Arena on February 2, 2023 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

McDavid is scoring at 1.84 points per game, video game numbers, heading into the All-Star Break. That’s 150-point pace in a league where scoring 150 points doesn’t really seem possible anymore. The last time a player scored anywhere near that was Mario Lemieux in 1996. McDavid was born one year later.

Of all the scoring champions to follow Lemieux — 16 in all the past 26 years — none accumulated points the way McDavid is accumulating points this season.

McDavid has never scored more than 44 goals in a season prior to this year. He has 41 right now in just 50 games played, leading the Rocket Richard race in goal-scoring. By next week or the week after he’ll pass his own all-time mark. How many goals will he score this season? Certainly 50. Maybe 55. Possibly 60.

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“I’ve never thought of myself as a goal scorer,” said McDavid. “I’ve kind of been a pass-first guy (in my career). I’ve always said, to take the best available play. This year, I’ve been in good spots, the puck is going in. I’ve never been an elite goal scorer.”

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This is the winter but with McDavid, everything goes back to summer. He decided a few years ago he needed to score more. He worked on his shot. He worked on the quickness of his release. He did what he always does – he studied goal scorers to see what he could learn or pick up. He watched a lot of Auston Matthews, watched a lot of Sidney Crosby. He likes the many ways in which Matthews shoots the puck. He likes that Crosby has evolved his game to continue scoring in various ways. He files all of that behind him and when this season began, it was a new and improved McDavid, coming off a giant Stanley Cup playoffs, that has lit up the league.

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“He got a taste of it in last year’s playoffs and I think it motivated him,” said Bruce Cassidy, the All-Star coach from the Vegas Golden Knights. “That’s what drives elite players. They want to win. He wants to build off their own playoff success.”

Cassidy had a chance to play against Lemieux in a Memorial Cup and play against Gretzky in his short NHL playing career. Where does he rank McDavid on the list of all-time greats? “Wherever you rank him, he’s going to be right up there,” said the coach. And then he made a Tom Brady-Peyton Manning comparison without knowing he was making it.

Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid (97) puts the puck through the feet of Chicago Blackhawks defencemen Seth Jones (4) during the first period at Rogers Place Jan 28, 2023. Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid (97) puts the puck through the feet of Chicago Blackhawks defencemen Seth Jones (4) during the first period at Rogers Place Jan 28, 2023. Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

All-time great play is so very rare. Gretzky won four Stanley Cups. Lemieux won two. McDavid remains in pursuit. Gretzky and Lemieux were Brady. McDavid is more Manning-like with more electricity and fewer championships to call his own. This is Year 8 for McDavid as a professional and a certain symmetry for this All-Star weekend. This is the place he was drafted. He still remembers racing around with rented jet skis on the morning of the draft. His family was here then. His family will be here now for a less important event.

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Less important with goals and assists that won’t be counted on Saturday afternoon. A playoff race and a playoff test for McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers still to come in April and May and maybe longer. Edmonton played 16 playoff games last spring. McDavid scored 10 goals, set up 23 others, scored 33 points in all. That was 2.06 points per game. That’s 169-point pace. Those three rounds of playoffs found the Oilers four wins short of the Stanley Cup Final. McDavid led the playoffs in scoring without making the final round — something that rarely occurs come playoff time.

And the Oilers remain in a playoff race to make it, even with McDavid having another sensational season.

It isn’t often the Hart Trophy race is locked up after 50 games but barring any kind of injury, the most valuable player award will go to McDavid this season. It will be his third Hart. The scoring title will be his fifth. The individual awards make for nice trophy rooms. The trophy he would push them all aside for — the Stanley Cup.

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“That’s the ultimate goal,” he said. “That’s what we’re building towards. I haven’t really put much thought into (records and numbers). Winning, that’s the focus.”

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Gretzky was consumed with winning yet also consumed with breaking records. He could recite every record he had by heart. His own record motivated him to attain his next one. McDavid doesn’t seem so impressed with leading in goal scoring or points, even though he tends to lead in points almost every year.

He said he hasn’t put much thought into the breathtaking numbers he has accumulated this season. He isn’t Gretzky in that matter: Gretzky’s game and style were all about math and geometry and physics. McDavid has the fastest feet and the fastest hands in the West.

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“His speed jumps off the page, but it’s not just his speed that makes him great,” said MacKinnon. “It’s how fast his mind can process things. That’s what makes him so impressive. No one is as fast as him and the way he processes it all, his mind, it’s really impressive.”

“Most players have slumps or bad years,” said Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who beat McDavid for the scoring title in 2019. “He doesn’t have them. It’s one thing to be the best, he wants to be the best. He pushes for it year after year. And he’s doing it again this season.”

Alone, all by himself.

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