Remember that stretch from the summer of 1999 through the fall of 2010 — before the Thanksgiving car crash and various injuries — where Tiger Woods was a singular force in golf and taking Tiger over “the field” never felt like a bad bet?
Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid is currently operating at that level of dominance.
Unfortunately for McDavid, his standing as the most dominant athlete in professional sports at this moment doesn’t come with the same increased likelihood of success that followed Woods every time he stepped into the tee box. Rather than his jaw-dropping numbers and the breathtaking plays he makes cutting around, between, and through defenders on a seemingly nightly basis, how far his team goes — or doesn’t go — will be held out as the sole measure of his success.
Watching McDavid play is like watching the last transcendent Edmonton Oilers star operating on the ice. Invoking the name Wayne Gretzky is rarely done in hockey circles because comparing anyone to “The Great One” always feels a little blasphemous, but if there is anyone that merits the comparison, it’s McDavid.
After posting 44 goals and 123 points in 80 games this season to win his second consecutive scoring title, the 25-year-old superstar has registered seven goals and 19 assists through his team’s first 12 postseason games. But what highlights his dominance even more is the fact that McDavid already registered more points (26) than the overall playoff leader in seven of the 21 playoff seasons this century, and is no more than four points away from tying or passing nine other postseason leaders.
Should McDavid and the Oilers make it to the Stanley Cup Finals, it’s almost guaranteed that he will surpass Evgeni Malkin’s postseason high since the start of the 2000s of 36 points, set during Pittsburgh’s 2009 cup-winning run.
His combined 149 points in the regular season and playoffs equal the-highest total since 1996-97, that of Malkin’s during that magical 2008-09 campaign.
He knotted the Penguins’ star Thursday while eliminating the rival Calgary Flames in the Battle of Alberta with this overtime beauty in Game 5
While that isn’t necessarily surprising given McDavid has averaged 1.43 points-per-game through his first 487 regular season appearances and 1.47ppg over his first 32 playoff starts, the fact that he’s continued to raise his game to this level following an outstanding regular season speaks volumes about his standing as a singular talent.
As unfathomably skilled as McDavid is on the ice, hockey is one of those sports where having the unquestioned best player in the game doesn’t guarantee you anything. Team success is predicated on far more than having McDavid commanding the puck and putting up historic numbers, and with Edmonton missing the playoffs in three of McDavid’s first four seasons and getting bounced in four games each of the last two years, there are more questions about his impact than statements about his absolute dominance.
It both makes sense, but rings hollow, as generational talents should be recognized and praised regardless of their overall team success, especially when they are clearly delivering Herculean efforts night-in and night-out.
McDavid can’t single-handedly carry the Oilers to the Stanley Cup Finals the same way that Luka Doncic cannot drag the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals despite his best efforts. Truthfully, Doncic had a much better chance, as he’s on the court and in control of the ball for far longer than McDavid has the puck and is on the ice. NBA rotations shrink to seven or eight in the playoffs, while NHL teams still rely on at least three lines and three sets od defensemen, as well as a goaltender.
If you’re looking for a more apt team-sport comparison, the former first-overall selection is more akin to a superstar quarterback like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, capable of doing tremendous things individually, but beholden to the play of the supporting cast around them.
Like the veteran signal-callers, McDavid can be absolutely lights out each time he takes the ice, but that doesn’t guarantee the Oilers victory, which in turn shouldn’t diminish his standing as an absolutely dominant force.
People will want to argue that sublime talents in other team sports were able to elevate their squads to championship success — Gretzky, Lemieux, and Sidney Crosby, amongst others on the ice; Michael Jordan and LeBron James on the hardwood; Brady earning Super Bowls wins with New England and one with Tampa Bay — but all of those luminaries also experienced their own fair share of failures.
They didn’t win every year or most years, for that matter; they won when surrounded by the right collection of teammates, faced with the right string of opponents, and when the group as a whole was able to put everything together consistently game-after-game until there were no more games left.
The measure of their true greatness and impact wasn’t simply in how many rings they accumulated, but how everyone had to constantly account for them, and how the game changed around them, which is why the comparison to Woods during his prime feels the like the best fit of all.
When Tiger was on, he was a threat to win every week. He forced others to change their approach, and courses to change their layouts. You watched him every time he stepped to the first tee to start a round, whether he was leading, a few strokes back, or having one of his rare off-weeks because you knew — you knew — he was capable of doing something spectacular at any moment, and no one else carried that same power.
That’s how it is when McDavid takes the ice.
Coaches adjust to account for him.
Opponents always have to be hyper-aware of where he is on the ice.
Teammates know to be ready at all times to benefit from the boost of playing alongside the transcendent forward or find themselves shuffled to a different line if they miss too many of the golden opportunities he provides.
What McDavid is doing now is brilliant, and in a sportinglandscape filled with parity even amongst the elite class in each field, he stands out from the pack as a uniquely dominant force greater than everyone else.
Connor McDavid is the 11th reigning Art Ross winner to advance to the Conference Finals since 1982 – four went on to win the #StanleyCup: Evgeni Malkin (2009), Martin St. Louis (2004), Mario Lemieux (1992) & Wayne Gretzky (1987, 1985 & 1984).#NHLStats: https://t.co/GsrxOmZ19p pic.twitter.com/K3soccyHqV— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) May 27, 2022