It's unanimous! Edmonton Oilers' superstar Connor McDavid recognized as the best player in hockey

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2021 Edmonton Oilers in review
Connor McDavid

It’s hard to overstate how great a season Connor McDavid had in 2021.

Already widely recognized as the best player in the game, McDavid took another step forward at age 24 and dominated the NHL scoring race like no other player this century. In a season cut by nearly a third, from 82 to 56 games, McDavid nonetheless soared above the century mark and finished the season with 105 points, a staggering accomplishment. He was first in even-strength points, first in powerplay points, second in goals, first in assists. He finished 21 points free and clear of runner-up — and running mate — Leon Draisaitl, and a staggering 36 ahead of the closest non-Oiler, Boston’s Brad Marchand.

  • His 1.88 points per game were the most by any NHLer in a quarter century. The last player to do better was one Mario Lemieux in 1995-96.
  • Despite the condensed nature of the season, his 21-point margin of victory was the largest since Wayne Gretzky back in 1990-91.
  • His 25% margin of victory over the runner-up was the largest since Gretzky was an Oiler back in 1986-87.
  • He and Draisaitl became the first teammates to finish 1-2 in NHL scoring in consecutive seasons since Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito back in 1973-75.

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On Tuesday afternoon he was confirmed as the league’s best in two separate polls. Members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association selected him as the winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy as the Most Valuable Player in the NHL.  Meanwhile, his peers on the ice voted him the winner of the Ted Lindsay Award as the league’s Most Outstanding Player. It is his second and third times winning the respective awards, to go along with his three inscriptions on the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL scoring champion.

The Hart Trophy was a unanimous vote : 100 ballots cast, 100 first-place votes for McDavid. He becomes just the second player in the trophy’s 97 (!) season history to be so honoured, matching the perfect result achieved by another Edmonton icon, Wayne Gretzky, back in 1981-82.

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As for the Lindsay, it was the third time in his six NHL seasons that McDavid has won the honour (or its predecessor, the Lester B. Pearson Award). Just six other players in the award’s 50-season history have been the choice of their peers as often, and each of them is in the pantheon of the game’s all-time greats. Gretzky leads the way with 5, Lemieux 4, while all of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Jaromir Jagr, and Guy Lafleur had 3. Add McDavid to that last group, with no indication he’s done.

Did I mention he’s 24?

Already McDavid stands head and shoulders above his contemporaries during the salary cap era, as can be seen in this list of the top ten points-per-game producers between 2005-21:

A few pretty famous players on that list, but McDavid is comfortably ahead of the brilliant Crosby and is close to lapping the field on the others.

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These days, of course, there are more ways to measure hockey players than ever before. Frank Seravalli, then of TSN, summarized some of the various ways McDavid stood apart in an April article under the headline “We’re witnessing the best season of McDavid’s career”:

Take a deeper dive and McDavid leads the NHL in many other statistical categories, according to Sportlogiq: pass attempts and completions in the offensive zone per game, offensive zone puck possession, slot passes, rush chances and zone entries.

They are mind-blowing numbers. In a 60-minute, high-paced game, McDavid averages 1 minute and 18 seconds with the puck on his stick in just the offensive zone. That doesn’t include the rest of the ice.

He also leads in open-ice dekes, when he beats a defender one-on-one, which happens an astounding 7.4 times per game.

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McDavid made important progress in his all-around game in 2021, improving his his on-ice shots and goals results at both ends of the ice. He played a far more physical brand of hockey, nearly doubling his hits rate from 1.58 to 2.95 per 60 minutes, adding an element of ferocity to his existing high-end talents of speed and coordination. Now two years removed from the devastating knee injury that spoiled his summer in 2019, he has reached a level of physical maturity a.k.a. “old man strength” that will make him a force to be reckoned with for years to come. He will always draw more than his share of personal attention from foes looking for ways to slow him down, legally or otherwise, and has shown an ever-increasing willingness to bring some edge of his own. He was fined for a perceived elbow to Montreal’s Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and drew criticism from some quarters for his growing capacity to fight his own battles. Others welcomed the development.

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After a strong second-place showing by the top-heavy Oilers, the season came to a disappointing conclusion for McDavid and company in the playoffs. They were swept by Winnipeg Jets in four close games, the last three of which ended (badly) in sudden death overtime. McDavid’s 4 points in the series paled in comparison to the ridiculous 36 he put up in the last quarter — 14 games! — of the regular season, and some accusatory fingers were pointed at the Oilers’ star. Others were raised in the general direction of NHL referees who for the second consecutive post season identified exactly zero fouls on McDavid which were worthy of a penalty. That was and remains a source of extreme frustration in Oil Country.

A final note from Tuesday’s awards: McDavid was also recognized as the first-team All-Star centre, the fourth time he has been so honoured. He received 99 of 100 first-place votes, with one outlier giving top honours to Crosby, who was named among the top 3 on just 14 ballots. Last year’s first All-Star centre, Draisaitl, was overlooked in All-Star voting, finishing fourth among centres and just 11th in total votes among forwards despite finishing 15 points ahead of every attacker in the league except his superstar teammate. Draisaitl also finished 8th in Hart Trophy voting. It seems after his breakthrough a season ago, in which he won the same four baubles (Hart, Lindsay, Ross, FAST), he’s back in McDavid’s shadow.

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Which hardly prevented Leon from having a little fun when announcing his successor in the two major awards: “Is there anyone you would like to thank… other than me?”

Good times for Oil fans.

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Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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