Connor McDavid Takes a Big Leap in March Toward Greatness with Oilers' WCF Berth

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistMay 27, 2022

EDMONTON, AB - MAY 24: Edmonton Oilers Center Connor McDavid (97) celebrates a goal in the first period during the Edmonton Oilers versus the Calgary Flames in the Stanley Cup playoffs round 2, game 4 on May 24, 2022 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, AB. (Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Just two weeks ago, with his Edmonton Oilers facing elimination against a lower-seeded and perceived inferior Los Angeles Kings team, stories about Connor McDavid debated exactly how long he'd put up with chronic playoff disappointment in the league's northernmost outpost.

Blow it up. Move him out. Let the league's best player perform on a worthwhile stage.

Funny how quickly a narrative can change.

Fast-forward 14 days, and after dispatching the Calgary Flames in five games—capping off the series with an overtime winner—No. 97 is reveling in a final four spotlight.


Long the star of the internet's most clicked-upon highlights—and collector of enough summertime hardware to stock a scrap yard—McDavid is finally within hailing distance of a Stanley Cup.

And if his first 12 games this postseason are prelude, we'll see his legend continue to grow in the coming weeks and further justify the lofty comparisons he's drawn since his days as a prospect.

SUNRISE, FL - JUNE 26:  First overall pick Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers poses for a portrait during the 2015 NHL Draft at BB&T Center on June 26, 2015 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

McDavid was a few months past his ninth birthday the last time the Oilers reached this stage of the postseason, got plucked first overall at the NHL draft nine years later and helped the Oilers get to a second-round date with Anaheim in 2017 that started with a pair of road wins but eventually ended in a seventh-game disappointment.

He signed an eight-year, $100 million extension that summer, and optimism was high that the team would grow around its precocious star the way the Wayne Gretzky-led teams had in the early 1980s.

Even Edmonton Journal columnist Terry Jones was all-in on the positive vibe.

"It's a good thing the Ducks won this one," he wrote on May 10, 2017, "because chances are it's going to be a while before teams are going to be beating the Edmonton Oilers in a playoff series.

"Orange Crush Era is just beginning."

Or, well…not so much.

Though he and running mate Leon Draisaitl have combined for five scoring titles, three MVPs and four Ted Lindsay Awards, the team has been more pedestrian than prolific when it comes to challenging the four banners Gretzky and Mark Messier hung before their partnership ended in 1988.

WINNIPEG, MB - MAY 24: Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers shakes hands with Blake Wheeler #26 of the Winnipeg Jets following a 4-0 series sweep by the Jets in Game Four of the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Bell MTS Place on Ma
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In fact, before the current run, the Oilers won far more games in those 2016-17 playoffs (7) than they had in two appearances since (1) while never coming close to a second-round berth.

And if you think that didn't concern the NHL's powers that be, think again.

Though he's hardly the league's only marquee player, it was certainly a disappointment to see its most productive athlete annually relegated to irrelevance during championship season.

Imagine Michael Jordan in Sacramento. Or Patrick Mahomes in Jacksonville.

Doesn't move the needle much, does it?

But now, thanks certainly to a sturdier supporting cast than he'd had in past years—including free-agent pickups Evander Kane and Zach Hyman, among others—McDavid can draw mainstream attention to the exploits he'd largely been performing in the shadows.

Here's a tip: The kid's pretty good.

He produced a preposterous 105 points in 56 games in 2020-21—a per-game average (1.875) bested by exactly six players in 50 years—before leveling up to a career-high 123 while playing all but two of 82 games this season. And believe it or not, it's been even better since crunch time began.

EDMONTON, AB - APRIL 6: Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers and Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers Alumni pose for a photo following the Farewell To Rexall Place ceremony following the game against the Vancouver Canucks on April 6, 2016 at Rexall
Andy Devlin/Getty Images

His 26 points in 12 games are at least 10 more than anyone not sharing his locker room this spring and compute to 2.17 per game, which is fifth-highest in history for players with double-digit games in a single playoff run. The only players to post higher marks are Mario Lemieux and Gretzky.

It's the stuff of legendary comparisons.

And the more eye-popping his feats, the more valid those comparisons become.

At 6'1", 193 pounds, McDavid is a smidge taller and heavier than Gretzky in his prime, and he's added a physicality to his game—though clearly a few notches below enforcer—that No. 99 never had.

He's also a three-time winner of the Fastest Skater competition during All-Star Weekend festivities, which wasn't around during Gretzky's best years but wasn't his greatest strength anyway compared to a uniquely spectacular instinct that allowed him to see plays develop and get to the right spots.

The game has changed to the point where there's no real shot McDavid approaches his predecessor's statistics—in fact, Gretzky's 92 goals and 215 points in separate seasons still seem otherworldly about 40 years later—but it's reasonable to suggest no player in the NHL (and maybe pro sports as a whole) has created a bigger chasm between he and his peer group over the last two seasons.

Despite differences in their skills, styles and eras, the gap between the two superstars and everyone else on the ice with them mandates their names in the same sentences with increasing regularity. McDavid has a long way to go before his accolades and team success approach Gretzky's, but his remarkable play in the first two rounds suggests the gap won't stay so wide much longer.

Sit back and enjoy the show, hockey fans.

It's one of those you'll brag to your grandkids about.