Connor McDavid isn’t too bad

The gap between Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby is closing.

Don’t get me wrong, Crosby is still the best player in the world (he scored a goal and assisted on another in the Penguins season-opening overtime loss to the Blues on Wednesday), but McDavid is gaining. It might even be 1-1A at this point.

McDavid opened the season with a hat trick in the Oilers 3-0 win over the Flames to begin the new season on Wednesday. I don’t know if the stat line even did justice for how good he was. The kid was that electric.

It’s amazing how quick and explosive he is. He goes from zero to 60 at the snap of a finger. I hate making comparisons like the one I’m going to make, but I don’t think we’ve seen anything on this level since Wayne Gretzky.

There had to have been at least 8-10 instances of McDavid sneaking behind the Calgary defense, taking a stretch pass and turning it into a scoring opportunity.

On his first goal – which may have been the nicest – McDavid snuck right into the left doorstep as Patrick Maroon and Leon Draisaitl were working the puck out behind the goalline. Draisaitl found McDavid for easy strike.

His second goal, he took it coast-to-coast, making everybody else look like they were standing still.

If you have the chance to stay up and watch McDavid play – do it. There’s a good chance you won’t regret it.

Advertisements

Goalies: 6-10

6 – Craig Anderson

Anderson was one of the real feel-good stories of last season, leading the Senators to overtime of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final after missing much of the regular season to be be his wife’s side as she battled cancer. But Anderson was no flash in the pan – he’s quietly been very good for a while now. Since arriving in Ottawa in February 2011 from Colorado for Brian Elliott in a goalie-for-goalie trade, the 36-year-old has won 151 games, posting a .920 save percentage and 2.59 GAA.

7 – Tuukka Rask

Rask had a phenomenal first half last season before falling off in the second half as he battled some injuries while having a leaky defense in front of him. The key for the Bruins is to get some relief for the goalie, who has averaged 66 games over the past three seasons. If he can get under 60 – he started 58 games when he won the Vezina Trophy in 2013-14 – that could be the difference between the Bruins missing the playoffs outright or making the playoffs and winning a round or two.

8 – Henrik Lundqvist

I’m not sure if Lundqvist’s place among goalies all-time is as high as some feel it is, but he’s high. Lundqvist needs two wins to catch Glenn Hall for ninth all-time in victories. He had one of his worst seasons last year – Lundqvist’s .910 save percentage was a career-low and snapped a seven-year streak of plus-.920 campaigns. That may have been a 34-year-old goalie, or a bad Rangers defense, or a combination of both. We’ll see how Lundqvist performs this season behind an improved back end.

9 – John Gibson

Gibson has improved steadily over the past two seasons, winning the Jennings Trophy in 2015-16 before posting a .924 save percentage and 2.22 GAA last season. The addition of Ryan Miller will only help the 24-year-old.

10 – Jake Allen

We’ll see how this one ages. All I’ve heard on Allen is how talented he is and I think he really turned a corner with his second half performance last season. I think the Blues have a legit No. 1 here going forward.

Goalies: 1-5

1 – Carey Price

Price is the best goaltender on the planet. No netminder is leaned upon as heavily as the 30-year-old is in Montreal, and he’s delivered. Among goalies to appear in 180 games over the past four seasons, Price has the highest save percentage at .928. The next-highest? Cam Talbot, at .922. Price is one of four goalies to record 20 shutouts over that span, along with Braden Holtby, Tuukka Rask, and Marc-Andre Fleury. Over that span, Price has played 25 fewer games than Fleury, 51 fewer than Holtby, and 58 fewer than Rask.

2 – Braden Holtby

Is there anybody in Price’s league? A small case could be made for Holtby, who has been downright spectacular since taking over the Washington crease. In his last three seasons, the 28-year-old has won north of 40 games and finished with a save percentage above .920 in all three years, and has a 2.17 GAA over that time. He won the Vezina Trophy in 2016 and followed that up by winning the Jennings Trophy last season. We all know what trophy is missing.

3 – Devan Dubnyk

It helps having a defensive team as good as the Wild are in front of you, but Dubnyk has been great since arriving in Minnesota via a 2015 trade from Arizona. Since joining the Wild, Dubnyk has a .924 save percentage and 2.17 GAA while recording 15 shutouts. He turned in another Vezina-caliber season last year when the Wild were one of the NHL’s best teams during the regular season.

4 – Matt Murray

Is he Ken Dryden? No. Is this ranking a bit high, possibly premature? Maybe. Is Matt Murray for real? Yes (or at least I think so). Murray hasn’t played a whole lot of hockey, but has played (and played really, really well) when it’s counted, helping the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups. In 32 games over the last two postseasons, Murray has a .928 save percentage and 1.95 GAA. After tearing his hamstring during warmups prior to Pittsburgh’s playoff opener last season, Murray returned during the Eastern Conference Final, recording three shutouts in 10 starts. The 23-year-old has a convincing 62-game regular season sample, going 41-12-5 with a .925 save percentage and 2.32 GAA.

5 – Sergei Bobrovsky

Bobrovsky is a little bit of a mystery. His last five seasons are bookended with lights-out, Vezina-winning campaigns while the three in between are riddled with injuries and underperformance. Is this a case of Carey Price circa 2014, a guy coming into his own as one of the game’s dominant performers? It could very well be. Time will tell.

Defensemen: 16-20

16 – Niklas Hjalmarsson

Hjalmarsson is the game’s best defensive defenseman. Nobody in the league does a better job of taking out the opposing team’s best forward. He’ll be a great addition in Arizona and should allow Oliver Ekman-Larsson to open up his game.

17 – Cam Fowler

The Ducks have about six or seven defensemen right now that are 26 or younger and are absolute studs. It’s a toss-up between Fowler and Hampus Lindholm, but I’d go Fowler at this point. The 26-year-old took a big step forward last season, emerging as Anaheim’s No. 1 while playing nearly 25 minutes per game. His 39 points were one off the career-high he set as a rookie in 2010-11.

18 – P.K. Subban

He’s in the perfect situation right now in Nashville, making up a perfect tandem alongside Mattias Ekholm. That’s a pairing where you’re able to get the most out of both guys, where they really compliment each other perfectly. Subban is one of the best playmakers from the back end in the league and has an absolute rocket for a shot.

19 – Rasmus Ristolainen

The analytics crowd tends to give low marks to the Buffalo blueliner because of his poor numbers on possession, which I feel is more reflective on how the Sabres have used the Finish defenseman than it is on the type of player Ristolainen is. What I mean by that is Buffalo has preferred Ristolainen give up the blue line in order to use his size as an advantage in the defensive zone. If adopts a more aggressive style of play under Phil Housley, the results could force the 22-year-old right into the Norris discussion, a la Zdeno Chara in Boston with Claude Julien after a season of Dave Lewis. Ristolainen is that talented.

20 – Oliver Ekman-Larsson

A truly gifted offensive defenseman who in the two seasons prior to last season was tied with Brent Burns for the NHL lead with 44 goals. Ekman-Larsson plays big minutes and is one of the league’s top performers on the powerplay, with his 66 powerplay points over the last three seasons fifth in the league.

Defensemen: 11-15

11 – Shea Weber

One of the best defensemen in the league to not win a Norris Trophy. Has that window closed? It very well may have. But Weber is still a very effective No. 1 blueliner in Montreal. He carried a weak blueline corps in Montreal last season. What his $7.857 million cap hit will look like come 2023 is a conversation for another day.

12 – Ryan McDonagh

Speaking of Montreal’s blue line, the Habs traded away McDonagh for Scott Gomez and Tom Pyatt in 2009. Think they’d take that one back? McDonagh has carried the water for an underwhelming Rangers defense in recent seasons. He’ll get some help this season with Kevin Shattenkirk to his right.

13 – Mark Giordano

He formed one of the league’s best defensive pairings with Dougie Hamilton last season and before that had a good thing going with T.J. Brodie. Sense a trend?

14 – Justin Faulk

Faulk is the senior, veteran presence on the uber-talented Carolina blueline. He’s 25 years old. He’s averaged 23:47 of ice time since 2012-13 while putting up 170 points in 335 games.

15 – Colton Parayko

No idea how he lasted until the third round in the 2012 draft. Either way, the Blues have a perfect compliment to Pietrangelo as a big, skilled defenseman that can move the puck. Parayko’s $5.5 million cap hit through 2021-22 will age nicely.

 

Veteran players offer their their thoughts on the increasingly-younger NHL

Before we get to anything, first let me give shameless, free plug for The Athletic – if you’re a hockey person, subscribe. Some of the best hockey content on the internet.

Anyway, really good piece by James Mirtle here, who asked some of the veteran guys in Leafs camp what they thought about what seems to be a league-wide shift to younger players. The older players, of course, don’t love it (nor should they, considering it’s essentially shortening their careers), but they gave interesting, thoughtful answers on the subject.

A player who I thought spoke the best on the subject was Dominic Moore, a guy who has made a nice career for himself by being a solid bottom-six forward who can kill penalties, and is currently sitting on the bubble of making Toronto’s roster. The 37-year-old is also a great source on this subject because, well, he can still play but his age and the way the game is played now (speed, skill, more speed, and a little more speed), Moore might be getting squeezed out. Ten of fifteen years ago he’d already be pencilled in the lineup for opening night.

Here’s what he told The Athletic:

“I’d be interested to see what the stats say about the quality of the on-ice play that’s gone with that trend… Sometimes with trends, it can be an imitation thing where teams are just going a certain direction thinking it’s better.

“I’m obviously biased, being in my shoes. But it’s a matter of evaluating players based on what they’re able to do. I don’t want to put my GM hat on too much because I’m a player, but one reason to say ‘go young’ is for cost.

“For me, I don’t worry about any of that… For me, it’s just about being as good of a player as I can be. Improve every year, maintain, be healthy and that’s about it.”

He got into the speed and skill aspect and how the game is played now, etc., that seems to be consensus No. 1 reason why the league has gone younger – and I certainly don’t disagree with that notion. But Moore brings up an interesting question – is this all cyclical? Do younger players with less experience begin making more mistakes for the liking of coaches and GMs, leading them to go with veterans that might have better sense for the game – especially at the NHL level – and obviously more experience.

It’ll be interesting to see if that becomes the case in three or five years.

Eric Fehr mentions how guys are coming into the league more mature, more ready to play at that level, harkening to the idea these guys eat, sleep, and breathe hockey. As Fehr put it, the days of seeing the prairie boys work on the farm, play hockey once in a while, and make it to the big leagues, that’s pretty much over”, which I’d contend has been the case for quite some time.

There were other good points made – Colin Greening mentioned the impact of new technologies, advancements made in research on nutrition, etc., on allowing guys to player deeper into their 30s (I’d add that fortune has a thing or two to do with guys playing that long as well). Fehr also mentioned the impact of the salary cap, as younger players on ELCs or second deals being much cheaper and more manageable than players on third contracts or over-35 deals.

My personal feeling is there’s pros and cons to where the game has gone. Obviously less clutching and grabbing, less goonery and a game more based on skill and speed has allowed younger guys to come in and play to their strengths. I think the league has become one more similar to the college and junior game in recent seasons, which tailors the game for these young guys coming in. But there’s also the part where there’s fewer jobs available for veteran players, who can bring a lot to a room. Think about a guy like Moore, what he’s been through on and off the ice (especially off the ice), and the value that can bring to a team.

Like I said, I think – like most things – it all comes full-circle eventually. You see the McDavids and Matthews and Marners and Laines come in the way they have in past couple years and the natural inclination is we need to put every 19-year-old kid in the lineup. Then those 19-year-old kids that are accustomed playing other teenagers from Barrie and Sault Ste. Marie don’t react as well to playing grown men and then all of sudden it’s ‘let’s get guys with more experience’. It might not happen that way, who knows. But it’ll be interesting to see how this continues to evolve.

Defensemen: 6-10

6 – Ryan Suter

His usage dipped last season to 26:55 per night, but Suter is the biggest workhorse in the game, playing a half-hour of hockey most nights. That workload could cause the 13-year deal he signed with the Wild in 2012 (which still has eight years) age rather ungracefully, but for not he’s among the game’s most reliabable players. Suter and Jared Spurgeon are one of the best defense pairings in the NHL.

7 – Roman Josi

Nashville’s fearsome foursome on the backend of Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis was the story of last season’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Josi is the best of this group.

8 – Kris Letang

What made the Penguins run to a second straight Stanley Cup title last season even more remarkable was the fact they got it done without this guy in the lineup. When healthy, Letang is as good a defenseman as any in the game. Only problem is he’s never been able to stay on the ice, missing an average of nearly 26 games over the last six seasons. Hopefully one of these years he’ll be able to have a full season at 100 percent so he can show just how good a player he is.

9 – Duncan Keith

Not sure how many years Keith has left at the level he’s currently playing at (for the Blackhawks sake, hopefully a few), but at 34 he remains one of the game’s premier defensemen. He’ll be leaned upon even more heavily this season with Niklas Hjalmarsson gone.

10 – Seth Jones

Wouldn’t be surprised if Jones was the best defenseman in the league in a couple of years. Since being traded to Columbus from Nashville in January 2016, Jones has taken on a bigger role on the back end and has responded with flying colors. The 22-year-old – who turns 23 next week – has one of the hardest shots in the league.