In the spring of 1985, at 24 years, two months and 11 days, Wayne Gretzky won his fifth Art Ross Trophy as the leading scorer in the NHL for the 1984-85 season.
At the end of the 2022-23 regular season, Edmonton Oilers centre Connor McDavid won his fifth Art Ross Trophy. His age on the final day of the regular season was 26 years and three months.
Gretzky would go on to win a total of 10 scoring championships. It is considered one of the most secure feats in the NHL Guide and Record book.
Is it possible for McDavid to catch the Great One? Based on age (he’s two years behind) the answer is no.
However, the world’s best hockey player is at peak levels and has now won three in a row.
Can McDavid get to 10? The game is afoot.
Gretzky, McDavid and scoring gaps
Gretzky not only won scoring championships, he lapped the field. If you lived through the era and were aware of 99’s exploits, the numbers below will not come as a surprise.
Here are Gretzky’s Art Ross seasons and the gap between the Great One and the runner-up.
One of the things we can look at in tracking (and projecting) McDavid is the gap between the scoring champion and second-place finisher.
For five consecutive seasons, Gretzky finished 70-plus points ahead of the second-place scorer. That kind of impact performance had never been approached before and is unlikely to be exceeded by any player currently on the radar.
Mario Lemieux caught 99 in 1987-88, at 21 and in his fourth NHL season. Lemieux would win again in 1988-89 and it might have been the end for Gretzky’s exploits, but Lemieux had back issues and that derailed him until 1991-92.
To add to Lemieux’s health issues, he announced he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Jan. 12, 1993.
Gretzky won his final Art Ross in 1993-94.
McDavid has not yet encountered his Lemieux, although Connor Bedard’s arrival for the coming season has created a lot of buzz. This could be the beginning of some historic scoring races.
Here are McDavid’s Art Ross seasons and his gaps.
Two things stand out. First, McDavid hasn’t been as dominant in his Art Ross seasons (obviously).
Second, 97 seems to be widening the gap on the runners-up. In two of the last three seasons, he posted 20-plus points more than the second-place scorer.
In fact, if teammate Leon Draisaitl is excluded from the 2022-23 numbers, McDavid’s gap grows to an impressive 40 points.
Are we looking at a different trajectory in McDavid’s later 20s? Why could this be happening?
The Oilers were teeming with young and explosive talent in the early years of the NHL franchise. Men like Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey and others benefitted by playing with (and practising against) Gretzky.
The Great One also enjoyed an advantage, as the number of potential impact linemates grew to historic proportions.
From the beginning of the 1980-81 season, which featured rookies Kurri, Anderson and Coffey, through Gretzky’s trade to Los Angeles, the Oilers were the most formidable group of elite talents hockey has ever seen.
For the McDavid-era Oilers, packing the house with elite talents has proven impossible for two management teams. No surprise there, but a degree of competency in the early years (using the 2015 draft picks, keeping Taylor Hall, etc.) could have aided the team and McDavid.
Draisaitl, Darnell Nurse and Evan Bouchard have emerged as part of the current cluster, but men like Jesse Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto and (so far) Philip Broberg have been unable to grow with the group.
McDavid’s scoring totals would never have reached Gretzky’s level even with a more successful procurement model. Several changes in the game mean far less offence in the modern era.
If some of those auditions had turned out better, no doubt McDavid could have posted more offence between 2015 and 2020.
Quality of linemates
Gretzky began his Oilers career with wingers Brett Callighen and Blair MacDonald. Soon he was partnered with Kurri in what was one of the most dynamic duos in the game’s history.
McDavid found his “Kurri” in Draisaitl, but the organization’s coaching staffs have been torn on the best deployment. Short of cloning Draisaitl, the 97-29 combination is a part-time solution.
Most Common Linemates
Jordan Eberle, Benoit Pouliot
Leon Draisaitl, Patrick Maroon
Leon Draisaitl, Patrick Maroon
Leon Draisaitl, Zack Kassian
Leon Draisaitl, Zack Kassian
RNH, Jesse Puljujarvi
Zach Hyman, Jesse Puljujarvi
Zach Hyman, Leon Draisaitl
Points per game includes all game states, and linemates are at five-on-five but in most seasons these names are the same for all strengths.
McDavid’s linemates are a talented group, but Draisaitl is the only strong future candidate for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Gretzky lined up with Kurri often, but also (at times) Messier, Anderson and notable complementary wingers like Esa Tikkanen.
There’s considerable bafflement when exploring the early portions of McDavid’s career. These include the coaching staff keeping McDavid and Hall on separate lines in their one year together; signing Milan Lucic when a superior version of the same player type (Maroon) had been acquired at a fraction of the price; the deployment of players like Zack Kassian, Ty Rattie and other replacement-level (or lower) offensive talents on the No. 1 line.
The truth is McDavid can score with anyone.
He posted 3.96 points per 60 at five-on-five with Drake Caggiula (who was signed this offseason as a free agent) between 2017-18 and 2019-20.
Those gaudy numbers obscure an important question: what if McDavid’s career included spending years with wingers of the same calibre as Kurri and Tikkanen?
His most common linemates at five-on-five and the results tell a story. These are McDavid’s scoring results with each individual linemate over the last three seasons:
Exceptional production with every winger save Kassian and Warren Foegele (all wingers listed spent 195-plus minutes with the captain).
Coach Jay Woodcroft is clearly comfortable with deploying 97 with Draisaitl, Zach Hyman, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Evander Kane. The likely sixth member of the group, Connor Brown, should slide in comfortably.
One note: Edmonton would do well to at least consider bringing back Jesse Puljujarvi if he’s available. Those scoring results are stellar.
Another note: As the current wingers age out of feature roles, and that will happen, it’s imperative for the organization to avoid a return to average or below options on McDavid’s wing.
Ideally, a foundational player can be found to support Edmonton’s most famous citizen in his 30s.
Gretzky’s wizardry involved anticipation, expert passing and an elusiveness we’ve not seen before or since. He was the definition of a cerebral athlete.
McDavid’s talents include those things and blazing speed, which allows him to play at a breakneck pace.
There’s a chance that speed and hand-eye coordination will allow him to maintain his scoring prowess well into his 30s.
Gretzky won just one Art Ross Trophy after he turned 30; McDavid’s speed may allow him to catch 99 in the 2030s.
Still developing skills
One of the more diabolical bullet points on McDavid’s resume is that he keeps adding elite skills.
This past season, 97 took it upon himself to score more goals. In doing so, he spiked from 44 to 64 goals and won his first Rocket Richard Trophy.
Can McDavid win five more?
There’s a path to several more in McDavid’s 20s and there are some good reasons to believe his breathtaking ability will have more sustain in his 30s than normal humans.
Speed is devastating to defencemen and McDavid’s speed is wicked.
If he wins three more scoring championships by 30, he could get to 10 if the Oilers can produce real talent for his line.
No one knows if he can catch Gretzky. What we do know is that it’s no longer a ridiculous fantasy. The last three seasons surely prove it’s possible.
(Photo: Christopher Hanewinckel / USA Today)
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