When we decided to do a Top 25 Under 25 rankings for the entire NHL this summer, one thing was certain: Connor McDavid would top the list. The Oilers superstar just earned the Hart Trophy as league MVP, so of course he’d also be considered the best young player in the sport.
For most players around the league, the goal is now to chase McDavid for accolades. For McDavid himself, it’s a chase toward history. His closest peers aren’t just fellow top draft picks, but eventual Hall of Famers. It’s an entirely different universe he’s operating in.
That’s what happens when you become the youngest team captain and youngest league MVP in NHL history. The question was never, “Is McDavid the best under-25 player of 2017?” It was, “Is McDavid the best player ever at his age?”
Over his first two seasons with the Oilers, McDavid recorded 148 points in 127 games. His second year included the Hart Trophy, Art Ross Trophy, Ted Lindsay Award, and the team’s first playoff appearance in 11 years. It’s not easy to compare players across eras given how the NHL has evolved over the decades, but this is a résumé that stands up well in history.
Among NHL players to appear in at least 100 games during their age 18-20 seasons, McDavid is ninth in points per game at 1.17, per Hockey-Reference’s Play Index. Six of the players ahead of him played in the high-scoring ’80s. The others are Sidney Crosby and Eric Lindros, two of the most-hyped hockeymen of the past 30 years.
To adjust for the differences between eras, Hockey-Reference created statistics that account for different scoring levels, roster sizes, and season lengths to make it easier to compare players. Here’s how the top 10 in points per game by age 20 (minimum 100 games played) stack up in adjusted points for their best seasons:
Wayne Gretzky, 1980-81 Oilers, 127 points in 80 games (1.59 per game)
Sidney Crosby, 2006-07 Penguins, 122 points in 79 games (1.54 per game)
Rob Brown, 1988-89 Penguins, 95 points in 68 games (1.40 per game)
Mario Lemieux, 1985-86 Penguins, 110 points in 79 games (1.39 per game)
Eric Lindros, 1993-94 Flyers, 88 points in 65 games (1.35 per game)
Connor McDavid, 2016-17 Oilers, 110 points in 82 games (1.34 per game)
Jimmy Carson, 1987-88 Kings, 89 points in 80 games (1.11 per game)
Denis Savard, 1981-82 Blackhawks, 87 points in 80 games (1.09 per game)
Dale Hawerchuk, 1981-82 Jets, 75 points in 80 games (0.94 per game)
Ron Francis, 1982-83 Whalers, 73 points in 79 games (0.92 per game)
So McDavid gets a sizable bump in his points per game from 1.22 to 1.34 as a result of the era adjustments. However, that still puts him in the second echelon behind Gretzky and Crosby. The adjustments lowered Gretzky’s total and raised Crosby’s total, putting them almost on the same level in terms of dominance in their best seasons before turning 21.
That list also gives you an idea of the five young players who stand above the rest in hockey history: Gretzky, Crosby, Lemieux, Lindros, and McDavid. Brown, the other player above McDavid in points per game, got all those points as a 19-year-old by playing on Lemieux’s wing. He flamed out with zero 50-point seasons after his age-22 season.
There are also some incredible Russian players who arrived too late to record 100 games before turning 21 — Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Pavel Bure among them — that deserve to be in the discussion of greatest young players. But entering his age-21 season, McDavid’s list of peers in history is quite short.
Last year, Gretzky told Sportsnet that McDavid was the best 19-year-old player he’d ever seen.
“But I don’t think there’s any question that Connor’s the best 19-year-old hockey player I’ve ever seen and I saw (Mark) Messier, I saw (Mario) Lemieux, I saw (Guy) Lafleur,” Gretzky said last October. “This kid is special.”
Maybe part of this is that Gretzky couldn’t watch himself — he won the first of eight consecutive Hart Trophies at age 19 — but it’s telling of the kind of company McDavid has. The only players you can reasonably compare him to are legends like Gretzky, Lemieux, and Crosby. He’s already passed everyone else.
McDavid might not quite be at the Gretzky/Crosby level, though. He’s been remarkably good in his first two seasons, but there’s a reason that Gretzky and Crosby are widely considered the two best players in history. They put up unmatchable numbers early in their careers, even when adjusting for era. McDavid, as good as he’s been, is a small step behind those two.
Of course, what really matters is what McDavid will do going forward. Gretzky won four Stanley Cups with the Oilers. Crosby just won his third with the Penguins. In an era of extreme league-wide parity, it won’t be easy for McDavid to match those feats.
But the fact that we can even have this discussion is a testament to how special McDavid is. He’s set up to become the league’s best player for years, if he’s not there already.
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