Connor McDavid on Saturday became the ninth player in nhl history to score at least 100 points through his first 53 games of a season, but reaching individual milestones is not what drives the Edmonton Oilers captain.
“It’s not about points,” McDavid said after he had a goal and three assists in a 4-3 win against the Vancouver Canucks. “It’s about keeping your game where it needs to be, your intensity level where it needs to be. You want to be sharp. I think that’s the main focus for our whole group. It’s just staying sharp and focusing on the details and keeping ourselves ready come Game 1 (of the Stanley Cup Playoffs).”
McDavid is the first player to reach the century mark in 53 games or fewer since Mario Lemieux (38) and Jaromir Jagr (52) each did so for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1995-96.
Prior to that, it was accomplished by Wayne Gretzky 11 times, Lemieux five other times, twice by Jari Kurri and Phil Esposito, and once by Bernie Nicholls, Steve Yzerman and Marcel Dionne.
The points, however, barely move the needle anymore for McDavid, said Ken Hitchcock, who coached the Oilers in 2018-19.
“He’s got one focus right now and he’ll have that focus for the rest of his career,” Hitchcock said. “And that’s winning championships. That’s a single focus. Trophies, accolades, they don’t matter to him anymore. It’s all about winning, and him and Leon (Draisaitl) and Darnell (Nurse), they’re driving that bus right now.”
Hitchcock, who is fourth in nhl history with 849 victories and won the Stanley Cup as coach of the Dallas Stars in 1999, said it’s the true mark of an elite player to move the focus from production to championships.
“That’s what the good players want to do,” Hitchcock said. “I don’t want to say they’re embarrassed by their point totals, but it’s not relevant. Winning and playing the right way is totally relevant. That’s exactly where Mario got to. That’s where all the great players get to. The points are just icing on top of the cake. They’re not near as important for the player playing as winning hockey games, as winning division battles, as winning playoff series and winning the Cup. That’s what becomes really relevant. And that’s what Connor’s getting to right now.”
McDavid’s 100th point of the season came when he set up Draisaitl for a one-timer on a 5-on-3 power play at 19:20 of the second period.
To Draisaitl, the milestone further cemented McDavid’s growing reputation as one of the best players in nhl history.
“He’s right up there with all of them,” he said. “It’s hard to compare eras, it’s hard to compare generations. The game has changed. Whatever those guys did in the past is impressive. What Connor’s doing is impressive. He’s right up there with those guys.”
It’s the fourth time in his six nhl seasons that McDavid has scored at least 100 points. He reached the mark in 82 games in 2016-17, 77 in 2017-18, when he finished with 108 points (41 goals, 67 assists), and 66 in 2018-19, when he scored an nhl career-high 116 points (41 goals, 75 assists).
McDavid was on pace to get 100 points again in 2019-20 before the regular season was cut short due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. At the time, he had scored 97 points (34 goals, 63 assists) in 64 games.
This season, McDavid has set himself up to win the Art Ross Trophy as the leading scorer in the nhl for the third time (2017, 2018). He leads Draisaitl by 21 points and is 33 ahead of Mitchell Marner of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins, who are tied for third.
Esposito won the Art Ross Trophy five times and twice accomplished what McDavid has this season, scoring 101 points in 51 games for the Bruins in 1970-71 and 101 through 53 games in 1973-74. The hockey Hall of Famer said he never felt any pressure to maintain such a rapid pace, and despite the constant media attention, doubts McDavid does either.
“Why would there be pressure?” Esposito said. “You’re just going out and trying to do your job and score as many as you can, if that’s your job. And McDavid is doing it. I don’t think he feels so much pressure. The pressure of trying to make the playoffs, sometimes that’s pressure.
“The only thing I felt was to let me play more. That’s all I wanted to do. And I played over 30 minutes a game sometimes. I played a lot and the pressure was to win and that’s all. It wasn’t about getting points or scoring. I knew if I got points, we had a better chance of winning.”
That’s where McDavid’s focus lies, on winning and winning at the most important time of the season, the playoffs, Esposito said.
“You just know it’s a new season, so what you did doesn’t matter a bit,” he said. “It matters now what you do and it’s different in the playoffs, it always is. The checking’s closer and we all know … that it’s harder to get through.
“He’s an amazing player. The speed at which he moves with the puck is frightening to me. And he’s so quick with the shot. It’s a wonder he doesn’t score more goals. I think it’s because he passes quite a bit, and that’s OK if the guy puts it in the net, and he’s playing with a guy like Draisaitl that can do that.”
McDavid’s impact on the Oilers and the nhl has been remarkable.
Of Edmonton’s 174 goals this season, McDavid has factored in on 57.5 percent. In the past 11 games, that percentage has increased to 77.5, with McDavid getting 31 points (nine goals, 22 assists) on the Oilers’ 40 goals.
And his effectiveness is accelerating.
Through his six nhl seasons, McDavid’s points per game has continued to rise, from 1.07 to 1.22 to 1.32 to 1.49 to 1.52 to 1.89.
That’s under increased scrutiny, game-planning and checking from opponents, which points to something more, Nashville Predators coach John Hynes said.
“I think these guys, him and Draisaitl, the maturity of digging in and understanding that there is going to be some obstruction, they’re going to get played hard and they’ve got to play through it,” Hynes told the “nhl @TheRink” podcast April 29. “[McDavid] is a dynamic, dynamic guy, but I also think he’s hungry, driven. To be that talented with the hunger and the drive to be as successful as he can be, it’s pretty impressive to watch.”
Hitchcock said in his experience, it has always been possible to knock some elite or skilled players out of sync, to “push them out of the competition” through physical play or other hard-nosed tactics that Hynes referred to. But now, the rest of the nhl ought to get used to the reality that that isn’t going to work on McDavid.
“I don’t know where he’s going to go points-wise, but from a controlling-the-play standpoint, he’s just starting to engage the mentality,” Hitchcock said. “The mental toughness part of the game has now caught up to the rest of the game, and now you’re seeing a guy that’s just starting to mature into the player he’s going to be. I think regardless of points, from a domination standpoint, the Oilers are going to be a good team for a long time now, and led by Connor and Leon and Darnell, obviously. You can’t push him out of the competition anymore. It’s impossible.”
As a player and coach, Dave Tippett has witnessed firsthand the habits of elite players.
During his 11 nhl seasons as a forward, he had the chance to play against Gretzky and was teammates with Lemieux in Pittsburgh in 1992-93.
Since taking over as Edmonton’s coach at the start of the 2019-20 season, Tippett said he has discovered McDavid is well into the transition of shifting personal goals to team goals, to valuing winning above all else.
That’s why McDavid was so nonchalant during the recent buildup to reaching 100 points this season.
“That’s who he is,” Tippett said. “He’s really dialed into making sure our team is ready to go for the playoffs. I’m sure he thinks that about his own game. If he plays as well as he can, the points thing will take care of itself, whatever it is. He’s really dialed in on making sure we’re moving the right direction, doing the right things for the playoffs. I’m sure he feels that if he does his part, the stats will take care of themselves.”