October 06, 2016 - 9:06 AM
It was around this time 10 years ago that Sidney Crosby staked his case as the best hockey player in the world.
As a 19-year-old for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Crosby scored 36 goals and dished out 84 assists, running away with the Hart Trophy for league MVP with an remarkable sophomore season.
Crosby would become the youngest captain in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup only two years later.
The Cole Harbour, N.S., native is now approaching 30. While he doesn't look like someone ready to give up his place atop the sport just yet, a legitimate challenger to the throne is about to emerge.
This might not be the year Connor McDavid, a prodigy not seen since Crosby, takes over as best in the sport, but his chase will almost certainly begin.
Just like Crosby a decade earlier, McDavid delivered on the hype which awaited him in the NHL. A whirlwind of speed, creativity and excitement every time he stepped on the ice for the Edmonton Oilers, McDavid posted 48 points in 45 games. That pace that would have placed him third in league scoring with 88 points if maintained over 82 games — just ahead of Crosby, who had 85 points.
A collarbone injury, which robbed him of 37 games, barely dulled the shine of his highly-anticipated first season and was probably all that stood between him and the Calder Trophy for the league's top rookie that Crosby also failed to capture a decade earlier when he finished behind Washington star Alex Ovechkin.
McDavid, just 19, could hit the very same peaks Crosby managed as a sophomore, with a scoring title and a Hart Trophy not out of the question.
The Oilers are confident their franchise cornerstone, who was named the youngest captain in NHL history on Wednesday (just a touch younger than Crosby), can handle lofty expectations like that on the ice. More concerning are the off-ice demands of a Canadian phenom and ensuring that those never pile up too high.
"I think sometimes it really depends on the person and he's such a solid kid," Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli said. "I think maybe you look back at the same time in the career for Crosby I think you see a lot of similarities."
McDavid previewed what fans at the new Rogers Place in Edmonton can expect this season last month at the World Cup of Hockey. As Team North America's captain, McDavid was a perpetually scary force alongside fellow No. 1 pick Auston Matthews. It was the sudden bursts of speed past series of overmatched defenders, the vision he showed with the puck, the numerous scoring chances he created.
Once a NHL wunderkind himself and now the league all-time leading scorer, Wayne Gretzky stated his case for Crosby as best in the world while also thrusting McDavid into the conversation.
"I think this kid's going to be a tremendous superstar and a great player for our sport for a long time," Gretzky said last month, even wondering how he might fare as the third wheel on a line with McDavid and Matthews.
If there was any doubt about Crosby's status as best player in the world — Patrick Kane popped up in conversation briefly — it's been forcefully erased.
Crosby has been unmatched so far in 2016.
There was the dominant second half last season (58 points in 444 games after Jan. 1), the commanding playoffs capped by a Cup win and Conn Smythe trophy and more brilliance at the World Cup. There was no better player over two weeks in Toronto; Crosby led the tournament in scoring and won MVP for the victorious Canadians.
His performance had an effect on fellow greats like Jonathan Toews, the captain of three Cup winners in Chicago.
"Sid's probably that No. 1 guy I think that everyone looks to in the room and tries to figure out, what is he doing that's different than the rest of us," Toews said.
The answer, he found, was in Crosby's approach, this "frame of mind that he's been the best for so long" and was determined to always meet that standard.
No team has won back-to-back Stanley Cups since Detroit in the late 1990s, but the Penguins are a threat to do so with Crosby playing as he is right now.
"He's been the best in the world for a long time now and seems to be getting better somehow," Toews said.
It's easy to see McDavid carving a similar early path as leader of a bottomed-out franchise.
Pittsburgh managed a 47-point improvement in Crosby's spectacular second season, emerging as a Stanley Cup finalist a year later and winner a year after that. Crosby was by no means alone, the Penguins talent base including a young Evgeni Malkin as well as Marian Hossa, Marc-Andre Fleury and Sergei Gonchar.
McDavid will be surrounded by a talented supporting cast himself this year, one that makes the Oilers a likely up-and-comer.
Edmonton, which finished last in the Western Conference a year ago, may not be able to make the same great leap as Crosby's Penguins did — from 58 points to 105 — and they may not even end a decade-long playoff drought, but there's a jump in there waiting to happen and it will be led by McDavid.
The debate will start this season. And while Crosby is still tops, McDavid is coming for the throne.
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016