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How special is McDavid? We level the playing field to find out

Believe the hype. No. 97's career trajectory may not equal 99, but it already mirrors 66 and 87.

Connor McDavid came into the NHL with expectations of greatness already thrust upon him. And not just the greatness you might suspect from a typical No. 1 overall draft pick; we’re talking historic, transcendent greatness, the kind reserved for the best the game has ever seen.

He was The Next One. Generational. The type of talent that singularly defines the league at a given point in time. Just like Sidney Crosby over the past decade or like Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky in the 1980s and ’90s, McDavid would be the unquestioned guy at the top.

Year 1 was just the start, and it didn’t take him long to electrify fans in Edmonton and around the league with his play. His rookie season was unfortunately cut short, but he still managed 48 points in 45 games, an 87-point pace that would’ve placed him third in the league had he not broken his clavicle.

Year 2 was where he really took off. In a season where no one else managed to reach 90 points, McDavid hit 100 on the dot, earning his first (but not last) Art Ross Trophy, his first Hart Trophy, and a $100 million contract. Scoring has never been more difficult than in today’s NHL, but McDavid somehow makes it look easy. He’s got some of the slickest hands in the league and he’s so quick you’d think there were rockets attached to his skates. He’s truly like nothing the NHL has seen before.

But even though he looks like an entirely different breed of talent, his numbers will never be as eye-popping as his skill set. It’s the same issue that’s plagued Crosby, and it has everything to do with the era making it difficult for straight comparisons to past generational talents. It’s even difficult comparing today’s stars to those of just a decade ago because parity has risen and scoring has dipped marginally.

Crosby put up 102 points in his rookie season. On the surface that’s a lot better than McDavid’s 87-point pace, but McDavid actually has a slight edge when considering how the league’s scoring environment has changed since 2005-06. Place Crosby’s rookie season into 2015-16 terms and it’s an 85-point campaign. Still amazing, but just short of McDavid’s pace, and a reason why points need to be contextualized.

The way to do that is measuring how far a player’s performance is from the league average, given the dispersion of talent, which can then be translated to any season. McDavid’s rookie season was 2.8 standard deviations above the mean. In hockey terms that’s equivalent to 87 points in 2015-16, 107 points in 2005-06, 116 points in 1995-96 and 129 points in 1985-86. It’s basically a way of measuring where McDavid was in relation to the rest of the pack and placing him that same distance away in other seasons.


With everyone on the same scale, it’s easier to compare how McDavid stacks up against past generations. This method isn’t perfect, of course. No one knows how a player would perform if you dropped him into a different era. This is just a way to level the analytical playing field for players who didn’t get to pad their point totals in the high-flying ’80s.

Even with the ’80s factor out of the way, no one can touch Gretzky at his peak. He had three seasons where he was six standard deviations above the mean, which is absurd. It puts him in the 99.9999999th percentile and would be the equivalent of a 150-point season last year. Just try and wrap your head around someone putting up that number in the current NHL, and that’s how far Gretzky was ahead of everyone else.

McDavid won’t reach that height, it’s likely no one ever will, but through two seasons he’s been right there with Crosby and Lemieux and projects to have a similar career arc to them after applying some basic age curves.

If everything goes according to plan, McDavid is poised to live up to the lofty expectations set for him from Day 1. The era he’s in puts a dent in his numbers, but with proper context it’s easy to see how far ahead of the pack he is already, just like Crosby was and just like Lemieux was (just not like Gretzky was). It’s still extremely early, but he projects to go down as one of the all-time greats.



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