When Connor McDavid stepped on the ice for his first NHL training camp, Taylor Hall already knew hockey’s “Next One” was the best player out there.
When Sidney Crosby stayed on the ice late after practice, Marc-Andre Fleury saw the best player in the world constantly looking to improve.
But who is the best player in the world right now? McDavid led the Edmonton Oilers to the playoffs and the league in scoring last season while winning the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award as MVP. Crosby scored the most goals and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP for the second consecutive year in pushing the Pittsburgh Penguins to back-back Stanley Cup titles.
“Crosby or McDavid,” Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Seth Jones said. “I think McDavid is what Crosby was when he was 20. … Obviously they’re the best two players in the world.”
Crosby preferred by peers
An Associated Press survey of 30 of the NHL’s top players gave the nod to Crosby. When the players were asked to pick the best player in hockey, excluding current teammates, Crosby received 21 votes, McDavid six and Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson one. Two players couldn’t choose between Crosby and McDavid and one said there were too many good choices to pick one.
Crosby spent the first decade of his career being compared to Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin, the best goal-scorer of this generation, because they entered the league together. Now No. 87 will spend the next several years fending off comparisons to No. 97 because even the players who picked Crosby know McDavid is on his heels.
“I think you’ve got to say Crosby because of his resume and the year he had last year, what he did in the playoffs the year before, what he did in the World Cup, where his game’s at right now,” three-time Cup winner Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks said. “But it’s tough to pick against McDavid, too. He’s just an explosive player. Just kind of watching him last year, he kind of floats around a little bit and then he’s just gone and he’s got a scoring chance and it’s just like, ‘How did that happen so quickly?’ It’s between them two.”
Crosby’s accomplishments and work ethic make him respected if not revered around the league. In addition to his three Cup rings, Crosby has two Olympic gold medals and won the Hart Trophy twice.
“What more can you ask of Crosby?” San Jose Sharks goaltender Martin Jones wondered.
But the mantle of best player in the game right now isn’t a lifetime achievement award. That’s OK: Crosby just turned 30 and scored 44 goals, the second most in his career, and players still see him still in his prime.
“Every year he brings something new to the table and tries to improve,” Montreal Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin said. “Even though he’s getting a little bit older, every year he seems to get an edge on something or get better at something.”
Winnipeg Jets centre Mark Scheifele gained more respect for Crosby during the playoffs, and he and others say the Penguins captain is the best around at making his teammates better and coming up big when it matters most.
“He’s proven that in big-time games in the last two years especially that he can perform,” New York Rangers defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “I know a lot of people love Connor McDavid, but I think Sid is at the peak of his career and someone who has lived up to every expectation that he’s been given.”
“Sid the Kid” was considered the heir to Wayne Gretzky well before he was the first pick in 2005. Concussions cost him almost two full seasons’ worth of games in his prime, and Crosby still has 1,027 points.
“You look at Sid and how much he was injured there and what he could’ve done if he wasn’t injured,” Los Angeles Kings forward Tanner Pearson said. “It could be scary what his stats could really actually be like if he was healthy that whole time.”
McDavid missed half his rookie year with a broken collarbone but didn’t lose a step. The NHL’s only 100-point player last season is so fast that his contemporaries marvel at how quickly the 20-year-old can do everything on the ice.
“He was coming at high speed, and he almost ran into me just stickhandling,” Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. “I had to tell him, ‘Hey, slow down kid, don’t run me over,’ because he just skates and he stickhandles and it’s something I’ve never seen before as a goalie.”
McDavid skates a little like Crosby and said, “If you want to model yourself after someone, I think he’s as good a guy as you can get.” He also has a little bit of Crosby in him that he sees plays most others can’t envision and executes them before a lot of opponents realize it.
“His speed is such a weapon that it’s insane, but no one realizes how smart he is as a player,” Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Shayne Gostisbehere said. “He’s thinking two or three plays ahead of everyone. It actually is amazing to see how he thinks the game and how good he is.”
Crosby is the best, but several players said McDavid is on the cutting edge of revolutionizing hockey. Kane said the Oilers captain’s 2016-17 performance made a lot of other players train to get faster in the off-season.
Speed is the future of hockey with McDavid leading the way.
“Connor’s that next generation, the way hockey’s going: that full-speed game at all times,” Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said. “You can see young kids are being taught that, and I think he’s the poster child for it.”