Every hockey generation has their great battle between star players. There was Wayne Gretzky vs. Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin and now Connor McDavid vs. Auston Matthews. The McDavid vs. Matthews rivalry has everything you’d want in an epic battle. It’s Canada vs the United States; it’s two big Canadian hockey markets; and in a few years’ time, if not already, it’s the two biggest names in the sport.
They’ll play their first head-to-head game in the NHL when the Edmonton Oilers travel to the Air Canada Centre (ACC) to face the Toronto Maple Leafs. More importantly, this is the first game between two players who are about to become the face of Canadian and American hockey, let alone the NHL. The game is being marketed as a marquee matchup in prime time television for the NHL, which should see strong ratings across Sportsnet, TSN, and NHL GameCenter.
Separated by one draft year, McDavid and Matthews are two former first overall picks, in 2015 and 2016 respectively, and are tasked with carrying the flag for two franchises buried in mediocrity. It’s an eerily similar start to the careers Ovechkin and Crosby had when they entered their rookie year in 2005-06.
Crosby vs Ovechkin Setup Was Similar
Ovechkin and Crosby both went first overall in 2004 and 2005, respectively. The 2003-04 Washington Capitals had a horrible year finishing 23-46-13 with 59 points, just one point more than the last-place Pittsburgh Penguins. Thanks to the draft lottery, the Capitals stole Ovechkin right from under the Penguins who’d have to wait another year before winning the Crosby sweepstakes. Imagine the possibility of both Ovechkin and Crosby playing on the same team? It nearly happened.
The same thing almost happened with McDavid and Matthews. In 2014-15 the Oilers and Leafs finished with the third and fourth best lottery odds at a combined 20% or 1-in-5 chance of landing McDavid. Edmonton wound up with their fourth first overall pick in six years, and the Maple Leafs stayed pat at fourth overall and took Mitch Marner.
Had the lottery ball fallen the other way, we could be talking about Marner as an Oiler and McDavid and Matthews playing as linemates in Toronto. Still, the following year, the stakes got higher as the Leafs and Oilers finished 30th and 29th overall, giving them a combined 33.5% chance of landing the next prodigy, Matthews.
The Leafs ended up with the first pick, and the Oilers fell to fourth and picked Jesse Puljujarvi. It was completely in the realm of possibility for Matthews and McDavid, as it was with Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, to be teammates. As fate would have it, they wouldn’t be, but that’s just one of the many aspects that have made this such a tantalizing story.
The Calder Race We Never Saw
One notable difference between the Ovechkin vs Crosby rivalry in comparison to the one drummed up between McDavid vs Matthews is that the latter will never compete in a Calder Trophy race. Ovechkin and Crosby competed for the award despite being in separate draft years due to the 2004-05 lockout.
If you remember, Ovechkin won the first battle with Crosby when he received 124 first place votes for the Calder, compared to Crosby’s four. In retrospect, it looks like a landslide for Ovechkin who scored 52 goals and 106 points to Crosby’s 102 points, but it wasn’t as lopsided as the ballots suggested.
There was no lockout for Matthews and McDavid to enter the league in the same year, but that shouldn’t spoil the party. After all, Crosby and Ovechkin fought for rookie of the year while Matthews and McDavid are currently battling for the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer.
Entering their first NHL tilt against each other, McDavid leads the league in scoring with 12 points and Matthews is third with 10 points. And they’re doing it at a younger clip than Ovechkin and Crosby did. Ovechkin was a 20-year-old and Crosby was, like Matthews, an 18-year-old in their rookie years. This time around, McDavid is the older player at just 19 years old. We’re talking about two teenagers that are emerging as the faces of the sport.
Not only that, but McDavid was named the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 266 days old. That’s 31 days before Crosby was appointed as the captain of the Penguins. Ovechkin wasn’t named the captain of the Capitals until he was 24-years-old. There’s still time for Matthews to best Crosby, Gabriel Landeskog, and even McDavid if he’s named a captain of the Leafs in the near future.
Could They Become Better Players Than Crosby/Ovechkin?
Part of the billing for this battle is the mystic surrounding the next great Canadian and American prodigies being pitted against each other. It’s similar to the Canadian vs. Russian rivalry drummed up for the Crosby and Ovechkin battle.
Kevin Allen (USA Today) published a piece earlier that shared the same sentiment, that we are on the verge of the next great hockey matchup in McDavid and Matthews. Allen’s article references some fantastic quotes from NHL executives, players, and analysts. One of the most fitting is from Carolina Hurricanes coach Bill Peters:
Connor McDavid has the most pace with the puck as anyone I’ve ever seen. More than Sid. I know that for a fact. I’ve coached them both. It is unbelievable. The puck doesn’t slow (McDavid) down. I feel like when I coached him or against, he can make a game-changing play on every shift.
– Bill Peters (Carolina Hurricanes Head Coach)
It’s the same phrase that was bestowed upon Crosby and Ovechkin when they entered the league. Now at 29 and 31 years of age, the two have laid out what will undoubtedly go down as Hall of Fame careers. Still premier talents, they’ll still be marquee matchups when the younger McDavid and Matthews come to town.
It was just a decade ago that we were comparing Ovechkin and Crosby to legendary NHL players of the past. Now it’s Ovechkin and Crosby that are the measuring stick. In Ovechkin, we’re now talking about a three-time Hart, six-time Richard, Art Ross and Calder Trophy winner. In Crosby, we’re talking about a two-time Stanley Cup champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist, two-time Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner.
Both have decorated careers, but what we’ve learned all these years later is that Ovechkin has had the most individual success, while Crosby has had the most team success so far.
Whatever the measuring stick for McDavid and Matthews will be, we could be left trying to figure out who will be the Ovechkin and who the Crosby between the two.
Either way, the ones that will benefit the most are hockey fans.
Let the battle begin.