The first time I saw Casablanca, I went in with somewhat conflicting expectations. This was supposed to be one of the best English-language movies ever made, and it seemed there was no way it could live up to the hype. An hour and 40 minutes later, Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains walked into the fog, and I admitted I’d been wrong: This movie was exactly as good as everyone had said.
That doesn’t happen often. Something that gets praised in superlative terms—e.g., “this is the best thing ever”—can be good or bad or somewhere in between. But it usually isn’t literally the best thing ever.
Much like when a hockey player gets billed as “the next Wayne Gretzky” or “the next Mario Lemieux.” That’s just hyperbole. Well, usually. This week, the NHL’s North Division playoffs will feature not one but two players living up to that preposterous level of hype: Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews. And they’re on course to do something Gretzky and Lemieux never did: face off against each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Connor McDavid first captured the hockey world’s attention when he was a child. The three Canadian major junior leagues—the top level of amateur hockey north of the border—are open to players aged 16 to 21. But in 2005, Hockey Canada created “exceptional player status,” which allowed certain players to enter the CHL at 15. Hockey Canada doesn’t award that status lightly; in 16 years, only seven players have been deemed “exceptional.” Three of them—McDavid, John Tavares, and Aaron Ekblad—went on to become no. 1 overall picks in the NHL draft. A fourth, Shane Wright, is currently playing in the OHL and is the presumptive top prospect in the 2022 draft class.
Anyone granted exceptional player status quickly becomes a household name in hockey circles, and yet even within that crucible, McDavid flourished immediately. As a 15-year-old in 2012-13, McDavid scored 66 points in 63 games. That April, he played for Team Canada at the world U18 championships and led the tournament in scoring en route to a gold medal. By 2015, his draft year, the 18-year-old McDavid scored 120 points in 47 regular-season games, then 49 more in 20 playoff appearances. Meanwhile, he was named alternate captain of the Canadian team that won gold at World Juniors, despite being the second-youngest player on the roster.
That March, Buffalo Sabres fans cheered when their team lost in overtime to the Arizona Coyotes, helping to give the Sabres the worst record in the NHL and the greatest chance at landing the top pick in the draft. By that point McDavid had achieved near-messianic status, where comparisons to Bryce Harper, or even LeBron James, would not have been out of line. No matter which team earned the no. 1 pick, it was universally expected to be used on McDavid.
Three weeks later, the Edmonton Oilers beat out the Sabres in the draft lottery, and the comparisons between McDavid and Gretzky—another left-handed playmaking center with a number in the high 90s—became too obvious to downplay. Even the Great One himself drew that parallel.
And if anything, the hype didn’t do McDavid justice. McDavid was a point-per-game player as a rookie, the first to achieve that feat in nine years. And he’s only gotten better with time. In his first six seasons, McDavid has tallied 574 points in 407 career games. Since World War II, only six other players—none more recent than Eric Lindros in the mid-1990s—have scored as many points per game in their first six seasons. All six are in the Hall of Fame. McDavid has also earned three scoring titles, a Hart Trophy, and two Ted Lindsay Awards, given to the league’s most outstanding player as voted by the members of the NHLPA. (McDavid will surely win both again this season once the votes are tallied.)
Historical context makes McDavid’s record even more impressive. We’re out of the dead puck era that plagued the NHL at the start of the century, but scoring is still far lower—by as much as a goal a game—from when Gretzky and Lemieux came of age. Taking the offensive environment into account, McDavid has more adjusted points in his first six seasons than any postwar player except Gretzky and Lemieux.
This season, McDavid led the league in assists for the second time in his career and notched his fourth 100-point season in five years. A 100-point season is a big achievement in any era, but McDavid’s numbers are so exceptional that they make it easy to forget he put up his 105 points in just 56 games. That points-per-game ratio, 1.88, is a mark that’s only been reached 22 times in NHL history—17 times by Gretzky and Lemieux, and once by five other players, including McDavid.
But like any old-school hockey man will tell you, numbers don’t paint the whole picture. McDavid’s highlight reel is a combination of no-look passes, end-to-end rushes, and magical feats of stickhandling that need to be viewed in slow motion to be appreciated, because otherwise it all just looks like a blur. There is no comparison for McDavid in the world of hockey. He combines Kylian Mbappe’s speed with Steph Curry’s ability to create space for himself with DeAndre Hopkins’s sure-handedness in traffic. McDavid is the best skater in the NHL, but everything else about him is fast, from his release to his hands to his capacity to process the game. And should McDavid’s Oilers advance to the second round, they’ll likely find an opponent worthy of the best player in the world.
One year after the Oilers drafted McDavid, the Toronto Maple Leafs spent the no. 1 overall pick on Auston Matthews. McDavid is the best in the game, and the biggest star in the NHL. But Matthews may be the most important NHL player of the past 30 years.
Since Gary Bettman was named the league’s first commissioner 28 years ago, the NHL has been on a mission to expand hockey’s geographical footprint. From its inception up until a few decades ago, hockey had been a strictly cold-weather game, with its North American footprint limited mostly to Canada and the northern U.S. By the late 1980s, though, that was starting to change. Gretzky was traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles in 1988. And as the league added nine teams and moved four others between 1991 and 2000, it prioritized larger, richer cities in the southern U.S. over established Canadian markets in an attempt to evangelize people who might not otherwise be familiar with the sport.
In a way, Matthews validates that process. A Mexican American from Scottsdale, Arizona, Matthews grew up watching the then-Phoenix Coyotes and fell in love with hockey. By the time he was 18, he was the leading scorer on the U.S. national developmental team, a two-time international gold medalist at the U18 level, and the best U.S.-born prospect of his generation. An athlete whom geography would ordinarily consign to a gridiron or a baseball diamond was now poised to become the first NHL superstar to come from the sun belt.
If McDavid is this generation’s Gretzky, then the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Matthews is easily comparable to another 1980s center, an imposing giant with a natural nose for goal: Lemieux. Matthews is still developing the playmaking and two-way game that would allow him to cash in on that comparison. But at 23 years old, he’s got one hand on the baton marked “best goalscorer alive” for whenever Alex Ovechkin feels like letting go.
In his very first NHL game, Matthews scored four goals, and he became just the second rookie since the 1994 lockout (after Ovechkin) to pot 40 goals in his first season. He’s averaged at least half a goal per game every season since, culminating in a spectacular 2021 campaign: 41 goals in 52 games. Matthews’s 0.79 goals per game ratio was 27 percent better than second-place Alex DeBrincat of Chicago. And extrapolated over a season of 82 games rather than 56 (Matthews was scratched four times due to injury), the mustachioed American would’ve become just the third NHL player in the 21st century to score 60 goals in a season.
Just like McDavid, it’s still unfair to judge Matthews by the same standards as Lemieux and Gretzky, who compiled their two-point-a-game seasons before modern goaltending (read: anything more systematic than flailing around while the puck whizzed by) was invented in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Going by adjusted goals, Matthews is coming off a tied-for-13th-best goal-scoring season since the end of the Original Six era in 1967, roughly equivalent to the best seasons of Pavel Bure, Teemu Selanne, and Alexander Mogilny.
Despite his size and goal-scoring prowess, Matthews isn’t the kind of hyperactive sentient cannonball Ovechkin was in his youth; Lemieux’s grace and finesse legitimately make for a more appropriate historical antecedent. In addition to his considerable physical gifts, Matthews has put painstaking effort into his shooting approach, studying goaltenders’ techniques for their tendencies and weaknesses and refining his own shot to disguise his release point. Yes, he shoots as hard and as accurately as any elite NHL sniper, but he also has the ability to seemingly teleport the puck from stick to net with zero warning.
Where McDavid darts over, around, and through defenders, Matthews moves more deliberately, with opponents seemingly parting for him like waves breaking on the bow of a ship.
Say what you will about the NHL’s temporary Canada-only division—and there’s plenty to say—but it’s put us on course for a Matthews-McDavid playoff matchup that couldn’t have happened any other year, and will probably never happen again.
The North Division isn’t just the Matthews-McDavid show. Matthews plays on a star-studded Maple Leafs team that includes John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly, and future Hall of Famer Joe Thornton, who at age 41 has entered the ring-chasing phase of his career. McDavid shares a dressing room and sometimes a line with Leon Draisaitl, the reigning league MVP and scoring leader (and my personal favorite hockey player on the planet). Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck won the Vezina Trophy last year and represents the greatest potential threat—along with Toronto’s increasingly hilarious habit of biffing away first-round series—to the Matthews-McDavid matchup we all want to see. And the Montreal Canadiens made the playoffs too.
But the Leafs and Oilers are the marquee attractions. Toronto finished the regular season with 77 points, and Edmonton with 72 (Winnipeg was a remote third with 63). The division’s top two seeds have the two biggest hockey stars on the continent, the two highest-scoring offenses, and a next to zero chance of meeting each other in the playoffs again. Being as they are on opposite ends of a very large country—and therefore in opposing NHL conferences—Edmonton and Toronto would ordinarily have to wait until the Stanley Cup Final to meet, which would require the first all-Canadian Cup Final since 1989.
No professional sports league on the planet knows better than the NHL that familiarity breeds contempt. For a decade, the league built its marketing strategy around the Penguins-Capitals rivalry, which not only featured Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby—the NHL’s two biggest stars—but turned into a blockbuster attraction when the two teams met in the playoffs every year. The NHL only got that through luck (and/or fixing the 2005 draft lottery to pay Lemieux back for saving the Penguins from bankruptcy, who’s to say?), and the geographical chips haven’t fallen in such a way that we get to see Matthews and McDavid face off every spring with a chance at a title on the line.
What an opportunity we have here, then. These are not just two of the most compelling athletes in all of team sports, with McDavid carrying Gretzky’s legacy and Matthews trying to break a 54-year title drought. Both teams are capable of playing thrilling, firewagon-style hockey and have massive goaltending questions. They could combine to score 60 goals over a seven-game series without anyone being particularly surprised.
Oilers-Leafs is the marquee playoff matchup the NHL needs. We never got to see Gretzky and Lemieux trade goals in a best-of-seven series. Watching their successors get that chance is the next-best thing.