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There’s really no great mystery to the debate about the NHL’s best player these days.
It’s Edmonton Oilers game-breaker Connor McDavid with his Flash-like speed and magical, silky mitts, and it’s not even close for second place. The 24-year-old McDavid is entering the prime of his NHL career and coming off a season where he posted 33 goals and 105-points in just 56 games while easily capturing the Hart Trophy for the second time as the NHL’s best player.
In fact, McDavid became the first player since Wayne Gretzky in 1982 to win the Hart Trophy last season by a unanimous vote from the PHWA (Professional Hockey Writers Association), which absolutely does not happen often at all.
I mean, it looks like a video game cheat code when McDavid really amps up the turbo pace and dangles through an entire team of hapless defenders.
Right now, McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are again at the top of the NHL leaderboards for scoring and they once again have the Edmonton Oilers playing like one of the top teams in the league. But it hasn’t stopped some NHL pundits from questioning the skilled McDavid, and more specifically positing that the explosive, generational player must alter his game if he wants to taste success in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
John Tortorella was leading this charge on ESPN, and Torts absolutely has a point after watching McDavid and the Oilers get swept by the Winnipeg Jets in the first-round last season.
Further, Tortorella said that McDavid needs to stop complaining about the lack of calls.
“He complained about it a little bit, that he wasn’t getting the calls," said Tortorella. "Quite honestly, just shut up. Don’t talk about it."
McDavid had just one goal and a minus-2 in the first-round sweep last season, and he’s merely been a superstar point-per-game player in the playoffs rather than the superhuman two-points-per-game freak he is during the regular season.
There’s undoubtedly a two-way component that needs to be augmented within McDavid’s game if he’s going to lead the Oilers to playoff glory. The pace of play slows in the postseason, defenses get much more treacherous to play against and the wide-open ice isn’t there to pull off plays like this during the regular season.
But there’s also another side to this entire argument when it comes to McDavid.
For a superstar player, the gifted goal-scorer isn’t getting the penalty calls others at his level might have expected in the past. In some cases, committing a penalty against McDavid is the only possibly way for some defenders to slow him down.
Given how much McDavid has the puck and his elite offensive skills, it’s confounding to think he didn’t draw a single penalty call in the four game playoff series against the Winnipeg Jets. In fact, he hasn’t drawn a single penalty in either of his last two playoff runs. According to the website naturalstattrick.com, McDavid was 57th in the league when it comes to drawing penalties, with just five on the season.
Alex DeBrincat and Brendan Gallagher currently lead the NHL with 10 penalties drawn this season. Both skilled, engaged players in their own right, but certainly not in the class of a guy like McDavid when it comes to time with the puck. Some of it might be a young player still not getting the benefit of the doubt from the veteran referees, but it’s hard to believe he didn’t get fouled in either of those playoff series.
Quite honestly, it’s better for the NHL brand if McDavid ventures deeper in the playoffs to show off his amazing edge work and elite skating speed. It sells jerseys and creates breathtaking moments that hockey fans across all markets will talk about, particularly with ESPN now poised to help take the Oilers forward to another level of sports superstardom.
Some will say that the NHL is a provincial sport and there’s no such thing as national superstars that fans across the league will stop to watch play. But trust this humble hockey writer: Hockey fans know when McDavid is coming to town and they rush to buy tickets to watch him play their favorite NHL team, perhaps with a chance to watch him dangle the entire home team.
Friend and colleague Elliotte Friedman has it right here wondering if a recent sag in NHL attendance is at least tangentially connected to allowing exhilarating players like McDavid be bogged down defensively by old school hacking and whacking.
Just don’t ask McDavid to make his own case.
"Guess I just gotta shut up about this," said McDavid to reporters earlier this week when asked if he deserved more calls.
You know what?
McDavid shouldn’t shut up about it. Here's a Greatest Hits of the stuff that doesn't get called against him:
It’s his league now and Mario Lemieux certainly didn’t “shut up about it” when the hooking, holding and obstruction were giving NHL plumbers the upper hand over elite players thirty years ago. People don’t buy tickets to see effective stick-work or a left wing lock played to perfection at the NHL level.
They pay, and tune in, to see the next breathtaking display of speed and derring-do that McDavid is going to show off on the ice. Calling a few more infractions against him is the best way to make that happen over the long run, even if hurts the delicate feelings of a few defensemen futilely tripping, slashing and hooking to keep from a starring role on the next McDavid highlight reel.