They have not been called upon to save the NHL from a season-long lockout, but 2020-21 isn’t that far off and, last time we checked, the league still has the same commissioner and roughly the same board of governors that had no qualms about scorching the earth back in 2004-05. So it’s entirely feasible that, like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin before them, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews will be charged with rescuing the NHL from its own greed and shortsightedness someday.
You know, it was fun while it lasted, though. For more than a decade, barstools all over the world had a strong staple subject for their occupants in the Sid vs. Ovie debate. The great thing about that is the two otherworldly talents took turns grabbing the mantle as the world’s No. 1 player until Crosby started to create distance and run away with it, largely due to his part in the ridiculous amount of success the teams he led enjoyed. Now that Ovechkin has won his long-coveted Stanley Cup and established himself as arguably the greatest goal-scorer in the history of the game, that debate is now over. They were both pretty good.
From their not-so-failing hands, Crosby and Ovechkin are throwing the torch and now it’s a jump ball (jump torch?) for McDavid and Matthews, the first overall picks in two successive drafts and generational talents that are supposed to come along only once every 20 years. In a league that is getting more stacked with sublime talent than ever before, McDavid and Matthews are right now without peer. The barstools and water coolers of the world have been warned. It’s game on.
Preposterous, you say? Perhaps at one time, but no longer. McDavid still holds down the status of being the No. 1 talent in the world, which is bound to happen when Wayne Gretzky’s brain, Mario Lemieux’s hands and Pavel Bure’s legs decide they’re going to do a mash-up. McDavid is truly a transcendental player, one who can do things not seen before. As long as he doesn’t get beaten down playing for an organization that can’t seem to get out of its own way, he will continue to amaze. But is there any circumstance under which Matthews would usurp McDavid as the world’s pre-eminent player? That Matthews is beginning to even render this a debate is amazing unto itself and a testament to his abundant talent. The sentiment still favors McDavid to be sure. You have to ask yourself whether there is a GM in the league who would consider trading McDavid for Matthews one-for one. (And it would be really interesting to ask that question of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas while hooked up to a lie detector.) But it is not a slam-dunk.
So far, Matthews has a Calder Trophy, something McDavid will never have. McDavid, meanwhile, has two scoring titles and a Hart Trophy as league MVP (plus two Ted Lindsay Awards, which goes to the league’s most outstanding player as voted by the players), a couple of things Matthews wants and are entirely within his grasp. McDavid is a superior attacker and has an ability to create more by himself than any other player in the league, an asset he will have to continue to rely upon for the foreseeable future. As one hockey observer put it, getting McDavid has been a blessing and a curse for the Oilers. The blessing is self-evident. The curse is that it has exposed them as a franchise with a roster that has non-Vegas-expansion-level talent. Matthews, on the other hand, has that all-world release that is impossible to track and quite often impossible for the best goalies in the world to stop. Each has a 40-goal season to his credit, but the likelihood of one of them piling up Rocket Richard Trophies on his mantle tilts decidedly more toward Matthews than it does to McDavid.
One of the main things separating the two players is the supporting cast. In his first season, Matthews was shielded from tough matchups, but he also received significantly less power-play duty than McDavid in his first two years of deployment. The even-strength analytics suggest Matthews isn’t that far behind McDavid in terms of production. But Matthews is buttressed by a far superior lineup, with John Tavares and Nazem Kadri supplying a ridiculous amount of depth at center. McDavid has Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Strome. You do the math. And even though one day this will and should change, Matthews has yet to be saddled with the burden of team leadership, even though you could easily make the argument that he, and not Tavares, is the face of the Leafs.
And there’s a good chance that after this season, Matthews will be making more money than McDavid. That’s because even at an annual average stipend of $12.5 million, McDavid is grossly underpaid. If there were ever a case for a $15-million-a-year player, it’s McDavid. The fact he was a hockey player and took less for the greater good should in no way impact the amount of money Matthews demands, even if his bosses think he should make like McDavid and take a hometown discount. And if somehow Matthews does become a restricted free agent on July 1, he will get a contract worth 20 percent of the cap, if only by a rival who wants to put the squeeze on the Leafs to match it.
Nevertheless, it should be a thrill to watch. And the way minor hockey is churning out young phenoms, years down the road we might be having the same debate between Jack Hughes and Alexis Lafreniere, or even two 13-year-old kids who are currently doing incredible things. For now, though, it’s clearly McDavid and Matthews, and that should be enough to keep us satiated for a long time.
This story appears in the Prospects Unlimited 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.