Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid?
Already, hockey fans and pundits are choosing sides as to who will be the NHL's brightest star of the future. On Wednesday night, Matthews shocked the entire sporting world by scoring a record four goals in his first career NHL game for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The No. 1 pick of the 2016 draft, Matthews' feat had everybody scrambling for the record books.
Not to be totally forgotten, though, was the Edmonton Oilers' super sophomore McDavid. The No. 1 pick of the 2015 draft had two goals and an assist in the Oilers' 7-4 win over Calgary.
Bleacher Report's own Adrian Dater and Jonathan Willis debated Thursday over who is likely to be viewed as the best player when all is said and done. It may be way too early to proclaim judgment, but that didn't stop Dater and Willis from forecasting who will enjoy the best career: the American Matthews or the Canadian McDavid.
Dater: So Jonathan, I hear you want to debate who will be the better player in the long run, Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid. Jon, I hear health care is free up there in Canada, so my advice is: Seek medical help now. My guy, Matthews, scored four goals in his FIRST CAREER GAME last night! My guy is on a 328-goal pace for the season. Your guy scored only two. Just a piddling 164-goal pace. Boom. Oh, and my guy already has made NBC Sports Network rearrange its scheduling for Saturday night. It's putting Matthews' home-opener for the Leafs on American TV. Double boom.
Willis: Well, "want" a debate might be stretching it. "Forced to speak truth in the face of insanity" might be a better way to put it. Auston Matthews is a great player and had a whale of a first game, but let's be honest: One less goal and he's sharing the record with Fabian Brunnstrom. That's nowhere near enough to anoint him over the guy every scout on the planet says is the best thing since at least Sidney Crosby.
Dater: Hey, don't knock Fabio. Even I can admit, he is a good looking man. But come on, Willis. Matthews is the talk of the hockey world after only one game! Four goals. In. His. First. Game. He was North America's best player in the World Cup. He carried McDavid on his line! Don't let your anti-American bias blind you to the greatness that is/will be Auston Matthews. Connor McDavid is a great player too and got off to a great start as well. Except for the fact he didn't play against a real NHL team in his first game. He played the Calgary Flames.
Willis: Right, the Flames aren't a real team, but the Senators are? Wait, let me take that back: I don't even want to go down the rabbit hole that is Canada's collective NHL franchises. And of course he's the talk of the hockey world—he plays in Toronto! Let's just acknowledge that if Matthews had the game McDavid did in Toronto and McDavid scored four for Edmonton last night, Matthews would still be the talk of the hockey world.
Dater: OK OK, maybe I will buy the argument that Toronto is just a LITTLE BIT myopic. The Toronto media maybe is just a TAD on the provincial side. And maybe the Maple Leafs organization can be just a HAIR on the self-referential side. But look, they have the real deal Holyfield to boast about now.
This kid from ARIZONA is going to be the best player in the game before long. Here's why: He is Jonathan Toews, the young American version. He's a puck-possession freak. He's going to lead the league in Corsi every single year soon, and being the analytics expert that you are, you know in your heart that will matter more in the end.
No, maybe he will never have the flash and dazzle of Connor McDavid, but Matthews is going to be the guy with all the rings in the end. Edmonton can score all the pretty goals it wants. It still has to win every game like it did last night: 7-4. Matthews makes everyone around him better. Did McDavid make everyone around him better last year?
Willis: I'm just glad to see that I've finally converted you to the cult of Corsi, Adrian. You've seen the light! But the thing is, you can be a great two-way player and still score all the goals too. Toews is fantastic, a glorious two-way center who still managed to score 58 points last year. But Crosby brings the same two-way presence and an extra 27 points. That's what we're talking about, here. The guy with substance, or the other guy with just as much substance and the Art Ross Trophy, too.
Maybe they both end up in the Hall of Fame, but only one of them gets mentioned in the same sentence as Gretzky.
Dater: Speaking of the Great One, it was great to see him back in E-Town last night. Let's toast to 99 being back in the league. And yes, I did see his famous smile after one of McDavid's goals last night.
But I have a feeling that Gretzky thinks Matthews is Mark Messier and McDavid is...him. And you know who won more Stanley Cups between those two? Messier 6, Gretzky 4. And don't think those two guys don't know it, even though no doubt they're the best of friends.
Fact is, Matthews looks like the total package. McDavid looks sublime and all, but it did concern me some that he had little impact on Edmonton's team game last year. And yes, I know Edmonton had the worst defense almost in the history of the game, and yes, I know it's had pylons in goal much of the last few years. I know all that. And yes, I know McDavid was hurt half the year.
They're both going to be Hall of Famers no doubt, if they stay healthy. But dollars to Tim Horton's donuts, Matthews will be the bigger winner when it's all over. Imagine what Toronto will be like, too, when it can actually win a game in which one of its guys scores four goals?
Willis: Wait, wait, wait. In this analogy, does Toronto turn into the big winner, or does Matthews get dealt to the Rangers? Because either scenario involves going way out on a limb, my friend. As for impact on the team game, there's a simple answer to that, and it's Matthews who gives it to us. In between celebrations of Matthews' four goals, I'm sure Leafs fans noticed that Toronto actually lost that game.
There's only so much any one player can do, even if it's McDavid or (sigh) Matthews. Ultimate Cup ring count for both players is going to have more to do with Peter Chiarelli, Lou Lamoriello and their respective successors than it does either McDavid or Matthews.
Dater: Wait a minute: Are you forgetting about that 1990 Cup that Messier won in Edmonton WITHOUT Gretzky, before the Rangers trade? Then, Mess led the way to the first Cup in New York City since 1940. That's what I'm talkin' bout Willis: For all of The Great One's video game stats, the fact is he never won a Cup outside of Edmonton. Matthews is more of a Messier guy. He'll be the bigger winner in the end, especially playing under the man who invented the game of hockey: Mike Babcock.
Willis: We've come full-circle here, haven't we? My American colleague, predicting a great Canadian dynasty in Toronto, one orchestrated by the Canadian inventor of hockey, who will correctly utilize a player who put it all together in his draft year after being coached in Switzerland by another Canadian, Marc Crawford. It's not quite the acknowledgement of McDavid's supremacy that I was hoping for, but it tastes like victory all the same.
Dater: Except, my guy is the pride and joy of SCOTTSDALE, Arizona. Willis, doesn't it burn Canada's pride just a bit that the man who will lead Toronto out of the abyss will be a kid who had cactus outside his bedroom window?
Willis: Of course not, because of the bigger picture. The whole reason that the Coyotes even exist is because Wayne Gretzky got sold to L.A and prompted a wave of other teams in the Sun Belt. That's the kind of impact a truly transformational player—a Gretzky, a Crosby, a McDavid—can have on an entire region.
I'm sure 20 years from now we'll still be debating players who came to love hockey because of those guys. We'll still be talking about Matthews, too but more in the way we talk about Doug Gilmour or Mats Sundin–as great Leafs, not paradigm-shifting stars.
Dater: Well, as Gretzky told Canada's own Peter Mansbridge the other night, it was actually an American, Michael Eisner, whom he credits with really establishing hockey in the American West and South. But maybe that's just a normal Canadian modest mindset there, which I like and respect.
Gretzky probably had more to do with it, I'll grant you. Well, all I can say, Willis, is this: If Matthews and McDavid are as good as they seem right now, as veritable teenagers, imagine how good they'll be in a few years. Can we agree that the NHL's future looks a lot brighter after those two's first games last night?
Willis: I think you put your finger on the overriding message of all the hockey played this fall. From the U-23 team at the World Cup to McDavid and Matthews now, there's no shortage of exciting young players in the NHL. They'll enter the primes of their respective careers just in time for the 2022 lockout!
Adrian Dater and Jonathan Willis both cover the NHL for Bleacher Report.