No matter where the Edmonton Oilers travel, captain Connor McDavid is confronted by the same questions and comparisons to the opposing team’s star.
In Buffalo, it’s Jack Eichel, who was selected second in the 2015 draft behind McDavid. In Toronto, it’s Auston Matthews, the No. 1 pick last June.
In Pittsburgh, it’s Sidney Crosby, the obvious measuring stick for the NHL’s entire “Next Generation” crop of youngsters.
Intriguing as the discussions are, McDavid would prefer not to be involved.
“I think it can be a bit of a sideshow sometimes,” the NHL’s points leader said during a recent stop in Buffalo, where his budding rivalry with Eichel was broached. “It seems like there’s a new guy everywhere we go.”
The same applies to Oilers coach Todd McLellan, who enjoyed a firsthand glimpse of the league’s top young stars while coaching the 23-and-under Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey in September.
“You’d like to capture that and reproduce it during the winter, but that’s really, really hard to do with 82 games and 30 teams,” McLellan said. “But for us, I get asked those questions night after night after night.”
McLellan would rather place the focus on his entire squad and not just McDavid, who at 19 has enough weight on his shoulders.
“Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a former first overall pick, Leon Draisaitl: These players have to not take a backseat,” McLellan said. “They have to step up and lead as well. And Connor can’t do it by himself every night.”
Team versus individual aside, the comparisons won’t stop any time soon. And in years to come, the buzz will increase particularly once the torch of the NHL’s marquee matchup, which used to be Wayne Gretzky versus Mario Lemieux, is passed on from Crosby versus Alex Ovechkin.
NBC broadcaster Pierre McGuire is intrigued by the many possibilities, all of which involve McDavid, whom he already regards as the league’s second-best player behind Crosby.
Aside from Eichel and Matthews, McGuire points to the Winnipeg Jets’ young tandem of Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine as natural rivals to McDavid. Unlike Toronto and Buffalo, who play in the Eastern Conference and meet Edmonton just twice a season, the Jets play in the West.
More enticing for McGuire would be seeing McDavid taking on Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews in the playoffs.
“McDavid versus Toews would be off the charts,” he said. “Jonathan is such a proven champion and, obviously, Connor hasn’t gotten there yet. But that’s where these guys learn. They learn by being tested by the fires of playing against elite players.”
The Oilers, of course, would have to finally make the playoffs, something they’ve not done since 2006.
Though Gretzky and Lemieux were in the NHL at the same time from 1984-85 to 1998-99, they never faced one another in the postseason. Crosby and Ovechkin have gone head to head in the playoffs twice: in 2009 and last spring. Pittsburgh won both meetings and each time went on to win the Stanley Cup.