I know Auston Matthews is 2 inches taller and roughly 30 pounds heavier than Connor McDavid. I know he’s roughly eight months younger than Connor McDavid. I know he has nine goals in five games this season, putting him on pace for 148 goals in the 2018-19 season, or roughly Nikita Kucherov’s career total. (Alas, one assumes his 50 percent shooting percentage will have to regress to the mean at some point.) I know that I prefer Auston Matthews photo shoots to Connor McDavid photo shoots because he goes a bit more “Zoolander” and is willing to drape himself in an M. Bison trench coat.
What I don’t know: If Auston Matthews is, or will ever be, a better hockey player than Connor McDavid.
But I know I love that the question can be asked without straining credibility, or as a product of Ontarian wish fulfillment. There’s an actual debate to be had here, and that’s the best thing the NHL could ever hope for, short of these two players plying their trade in the lower 48.
Matthews’s hot start has allowed the Canadian media machine to churn out hot takes on the matter with the frequency of William Nylander trade rumors. Sportsnet dedicated a segment of Hockey Central to it, giving Matthews the nod in shooting ability and playing a “200-foot game,” while McDavid was given credit for his superhuman speed and playmaking ability. TSN wondered if Matthews was now in the “upper echelon” of NHL talents. A year after the venerable columnist Bruce Arthur declared that “the debate wasn’t a debate yet,” he wrote a piece under a headline declaring that “Leafs’ Auston Matthews in the best-player conversation with Connor McDavid.” As an unnamed source said in that article: “I think Matthews is the only one who can get into the best-player-in-the-world conversation with Connor.”
Now, one could argue that the debate is one-sided, because Matthews doesn’t have two scoring titles, two Player of the Year awards, a Hart Trophy and probably a second MVP had the Oilers made the playoff cut last year. McDavid is already a hockey deity in Year 4 of his career. He does things at full speed that, frankly, no other player in NHL history has done.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a debate. And if there’s a debate, that means there’s a rivalry. And that’s good news for the NHL.
The NHL basically knows how to market only two things: outdoor games and rivalries. Everything else is a happy accident they managed not to screw up. (We’re giving it two months before Gary Bettman announces that every team gets its own Gritty, thus ruining the bit.) The problem with team rivalries in 2018 is that there aren’t many of them. Yes, the Penguins vs. Capitals, Kings vs. Ducks, Bruins vs. Leafs and now the Predators vs. Jets have some juice. But none of them is Red Wings vs. Avalanche. The hate quotient and chaos factors aren’t what they once were for team rivalries. Unless Tom Wilson’s on the ice.
But player vs. player rivalries transcend eras. Gretzky vs. Mario is debated to this day. Crosby vs. Ovechkin helped jump-start the league after an embarrassing and soul-crushing cancelled season. McDavid vs. Matthews is happening at a time when goal-scoring is in an upswing and a new generation of players is rising up with it. If Sid and Alex helped rescue the NHL, Connor and Auston are raising it to new heights.
“One of the best things that has happened to the NHL since Crosby and Ovechkin,” said Gretzky of McDavid and Matthews last season.
But here’s the thing: In some ways, I think McDavid vs. Matthews could surpass the Crosby vs. Ovechkin rivalry.
Sid vs. Ovi had a lot of ancillary things going for it. The Canada vs. Russia thing. The Penguins vs. Capitals thing. The stoic hockey automaton vs. “Is Party Now” rockstar thing. But over time, two things became quite clear about their feud:
1. They were two distinctly different players. They played starkly different positions. Crosby was by far the more complete player; but while he won the Richard Trophy twice, he’s 200 career goals behind Ovechkin, the far superior goal scorer.
2. The frequency with which Ovechkin and Crosby met in the regular season and postseason blunted the excitement of that rivalry. It’s hard to be Magic vs. Bird when you’re division rivals. That’s the main reason NHL fans started pushing back on the rivalry hype — at one point, it felt like we were being force fed the narrative.
Matthews and McDavid, like Gretzky and Lemieux, are both centers. Matthews and McDavid, like Gretzky and Lemieux, are in different conferences. Their meetings are infrequent, and hence monumental. If they were ever to meet in the playoffs, under current circumstances, it would be for the Stanley Cup.
Their rivalry, then, exists in stats, accolades and conjecture rather than head-to-head battles. That’s one reason why Gretzky vs. Lemieux lingers today, along with the speculation over what Mario would have been like if healthy, as well as what he could have accomplished had he not been skating with Rob Brown while Gretzky had Jari Kurri.
We’re already seeing that latter situation, in a sense, with McDavid and Matthews: Connor’s team is a poorly constructed, rickety ship that he’s trying to drag to shore; Auston has as potent a forward group as there is in the NHL with the addition of John Tavares. (And yet Maple Leafs fans are also quick to note that Zach Hyman is the new Rob Brown.)
Back to the debate: If I’m starting a team, I’m starting it with McDavid. If I have to win one game, I’m doing it with McDavid. I think he’s the best player in the world right now, with room to grow. But I think I’m with Ray Ferraro as he weighed in on the debate this week: “McDavid is No. 1 and Matthews is right at his shoulder.” There’s a conversation to be had.
What I dread is that this will end up looking like another aspect of Crosby vs. Ovechkin, one that’s somewhat been back-burnered now that the latter finally won the Stanley Cup: That Matthews achieves vastly more team success than McDavid. That Auston is raising the Cup and the Conn Smythe while McDavid hoists (another) Hart Trophy and (another) Art Ross.
I don’t want that inequity. I want both the Leafs and the Oilers to challenge for championships, and I want Matthews and McDavid on a collision course to the Stanley Cup Final showdown we never got with Gretzky and Lemieux and couldn’t get with Crosby and Ovechkin.
Unfortunately, when it comes to Maple Leafs management vs. Oilers management this season, there’s no debate which one is superior.
From an Anaheim Ducks’ recent home game:
– Laura Kuntz (@MeSooLaLa) October 9, 2018
“Go Sharks” on a Ducks jersey, one with Scott Niedermayer’s number no less, is something beyond a foul. It’s an affront. It’s blasphemy. It had better have been a lost wager because dear Hockey Gods is it wrong.
Meanwhile, in Buffalo:
– Mike Kotas (@Mikeymike15) October 6, 2018
Rasmus Ristolainen does not appreciate your Sammy Hagar reference at his expense, sir.
The Nashville Predators added a banner to the rafters at their home opener, and everyone had a laugh:
– Ryan Cooley (@ryancooley) October 10, 2018
Hoisting a “Regular Season Western Conference Champions” banner is like a track star forging themselves an Olympic medal for having the fastest qualifying time.
The Predators are hardly the first team to celebrate a regular-season championship in the NHL, as the Washington Capitals, San Jose Sharks, Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars have all done it in the past. Nashville is just the latest team to dabble in the dark arts of this idiocy, in which a team that failed to win a postseason championship commemorates the fact that they … well, qualified for the playoffs more emphatically than anyone else in their conference. That’s basically it. Otherwise it’s a monument to futility and of squandered opportunity. It’s the participation ribbon of championship banners.
Look, I’m usually one to defend a beloved “non-traditional market” when the traditional ones are slagging them for something like this. But a “Regular Season Western Conference Champions” banner might as well be used to collect catfish off the ice.
Listen to ESPN ON ICE
Great show this week, as Emily and I chat with Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh about being a Cup favorite, the Rangers trading him and Rick Nash’s health. Plus John Buccigross on NCAA hockey and his NHL picks, and our look at the goal-scoring surge. Stream it here or catch it on iTunes here.
Sens Pick Tracker, The Best And Saddest New Hockey Site (Q&A)
As you might have heard, the Ottawa Senators are expected to be one of the NHL’s worst teams this season but will gain virtually nothing of consequence from it: They opted not to give up their first-round pick last season, so they have to surrender their first-rounder next June to the Colorado Avalanche as compensation from the Matt Duchene trade.
Where will the Avalanche ultimately pick in the NHL draft? Will they end up with generational talent Jack Hughes? Well, there’s a new way to keep up with that: Sens Pick Tracker, a site that offers updated lottery odds and a scathing recap of Ottawa’s foibles, hit the web with a wallop this week. We did a brief Q&A with its founder, Julien Baril.
ESPN: What’s your background for hockey, and your fandom?
Baril: I play and have watched hockey for as long as I can remember. Growing up in a small town in the province of Quebec, there was not much to do except playing hockey outside with your friends. I was relatively young when the Nordiques left Quebec City to move to Denver but I have always cheered for the Avalanche.
My fandom for the Avs reached its highest point when Twitter and Facebook came into play. Before then, I could only see the Avs play on TV when they faced Montreal or watching highlights on RDS and TSN before heading to class. Now, social media allows me to connect with other fans and games are also easier to watch. I actually went to Denver for the first time during the Stadium Series week to see my childhood idols play in the Alumni Game as well as seeing my favorite player, Alex Tanguay, score his last goal with the Avalanche the following night.
ESPN: What inspired the Sens Pick Tracker? Who did you make it for?
Baril: I always wanted to make a website about hockey but I never really found a particular subject that I could work on. I love reading about advanced stats and I currently work in a web agency so I decided to try to learn how the NHL API works by building a small website to display stats. I was talking about it a couple of weeks ago to a coworker and it gave me the idea of expanding the project towards what it currently is right now.
As for who I made it for, I felt it was hard to figure out every day if the Senators were in a playoff spot or not, and whatever the odds for the first round pick were. I am probably not the only one in the same situation so I decided to publish the website as some sort of dashboard.
ESPN: Your reaction to the reaction to its launch?
Baril: It’s unbelievable. I had planned on posting the link on a couple of websites but I was really surprised by the amount of retweets coming from many columnists that I read every day, including yourself. The general reaction from the fans is pretty cool too, I will definitely add more features to keep them updated as the season goes.
ESPN: With the benefit of hindsight, can you believe how misguided the Duchene trade was?
Baril: Looking at the trade right now, I would have been really happy if it was straight up a three-player deal between Duchene, [Kyle] Turris and [Samuel] Girard. The Avalanche found the right player to pair with Erik Johnson this season and Girard is already proving himself as a valuable asset in the team. Adding upcoming talent like Bowers and the first-round pick makes me think Joe Sakic got more than what he needed from Ottawa.
ESPN: Do you take a special pleasure in the misery of the Senators in this situation? Why or why not?
Baril: I have many Sens fans on Facebook and I’ve already been to a game at the Canadian Tire Centre with some of them. It sucks for a fandom to see what’s going on but the way everything has happened so far in the timeline is quite comical and that’s where my special pleasure is coming from. I wish nothing but the best to the Ottawa Senators fans and they clearly have something to be happy about with [Brady] Tkachuk and [Maxime] Lajoie‘s performance on Wednesday night.
Custance with an oral history of Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey ($).
Comparing William Nylander’s situation to Nikita Kucherov’s two years ago.
A feature on Kendall Coyne and her NFL offensive lineman husband, and a bit about women’s hockey in the future: “What we need is one league and we want one league under the direction of the NHL, and I think that’s the next big step in our game. We need to hopefully operate like a WNBA, and that’s the future.”
Meghan Agosta is a cop!
Zdeno Chara on Connor McDavid: “He would have had 80 points at 16. If he was 17 years old, he’d have 90, and 100 points at 18. Did Connor need 100 games to show us how good he was? No, first game he was very much noticeable.”
Powerful moment at an NCAA game recently, as players honored one of their own who lost his older brother.
Lambert asks why player performance is so subjective.
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)
KHLer Zachary Yuen talks about adapting to life playing hockey in Russia and his hopes for representing China at the 2022 Olympics.
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Terrific piece from Emily Kaplan on Patrick Maroon. “They say ‘keep your nose clean.’ I was keeping my nose dirty. You’re making 40 grand, you’re living on your own, you’re living with roommates who party, you party, things can get a little sideways at times. I knew how to play hockey, that’s it. I didn’t know how to take care of myself off the ice.”