A Stanley Cup for Connor McDavid in his prime? It could be now or never

DALLAS – You’d never know it from the way they treat each other on the ice, with the facewashes and cross-checks and endless strings of profanity, but there’s a tremendous amount of respect between most NHL players. Anyone who makes it to the NHL – and anyone who makes it that far in the Stanley Cup playoffs – knows the work that goes into it. The sacrifice and the talent too. Ask any player about any other player, and with a few exceptions (often Florida Panthers-based ones) you’ll hear some variation of “He’s a good player.”

But with Connor McDavid it’s different.

Other players not only respect McDavid, they are in awe of him: the things he can do, the things he has done, the things he will do. In a sport enjoying a new golden age of superstars, McDavid is a special entity, a player capable of doing things no one else in the league can do, things no one else in the league has ever done.

“McDavid might be the best player ever,” said star forward Matt Duchene, a sacrilege secretly shared by virtually everyone in the league.

And yet he would probably tell you that he accomplished nothing. Because his Edmonton Oilers haven’t won anything. That makes Game 6 of the Western Conference finals Sunday night in Edmonton a game of almost unfathomable importance for McDavid.

The Oilers found that 60-minute match they’ve been looking for all series Friday night in Dallas, dominating defensively and on power plays on their way to a 3-1 victory in a Game 5 that legally must be described as “critical” . Edmonton now leads the series 3-2 and can take down the Stars on Sunday night in front of what will surely be a raucous home crowd at Rogers Place.

It will be the biggest match of McDavid’s career so far. And it will be the greatest pressure he has ever felt.

Because nine seasons into his NHL career, in his absolute prime, the closest McDavid has ever come to the Stanley Cup Final is a championship. And if he stays in Edmonton long-term, he may never have a better opportunity to have his name engraved in the silver of the Stanley Cup. Certainly not in his prime.

Nine seasons into his NHL career, this is the closest Connor McDavid has ever gotten to the Stanley Cup Final. (Chris Jones/USA Today)

That’s not to say the Oilers will fall off a cliff next season. Far from it. But it’s entirely conceivable that Leon Draisaitl, McDavid’s old running buddy and also one of the world’s greatest hockey players, won’t be wearing blue and orange next spring. He’s entering the final year of his contract, and if he doesn’t sign an extension this summer, if he wants to become another team’s alpha, the Oilers will have to make a nearly impossible decision: whether to make another run. on this thing with their dynamic duo and risk losing Draisaitl for nothing in free agency, or trading Draisaitl at the deadline, his 10-team no-movement clause all but ensuring they get nothing close to real in return get value.

Additionally, if the Oilers extend Draisaitl, it will legitimately cost a fortune, with at least $25 million tied up in two players. If they lose Draisaitl, who is currently comically underpaid at $8.5 million, they will never be able to replace him with a total of $8.5 million worth of players.

Meanwhile, Edmonton has the 25th-ranked prospect rankings, per The Athleticsby Scott Wheeler. And they have one pick in the first four rounds of this year’s draft, a second-rounder. Other than 22-year-old defenseman Philip Broberg, who scored Edmonton’s third goal in Game 5, no help is on the way.

So this is McDavid’s biggest and best and perhaps only chance to bring a Stanley Cup to Edmonton while being this version of himself, the most unstoppable player in the game. He’s only 27, but as the Oilers have learned on the seemingly endless climb to this point (including an educational win at the hands of the superior Colorado Avalanche in the 2022 conference finals), building a true contender is incredibly difficult.

The 2024 Oilers are deeper than anyone ever imagined, the way they have often smothered waves of high-end Dallas forwards in this series is proof of that. But they have just seven forwards signed for next season for a whopping $39.75 million, with Darnell Nurse taking $9.25 million off the cap for another six seasons. And with Draisaitl potentially leaving and McDavid himself on a new deal in two seasons ($15 million or more per year?), it will be as difficult as ever to keep this team from becoming too top-heavy again. too thin to return to this point.

Last year, Jack Eichel became the first player to win the Stanley Cup with a cap hit of $10 million. Previous megastars won their Cups with their entry-level deals or bridge deals, or with seven-figure caps. Nathan MacKinnon had a measly $6.3 million cap hit when he won the Cup in 2022. Toronto still has to figure out how to really handle a roster loaded with eight-figure deals at the top. Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews won three Cups before signing their matching $10.5 million deals; they never won a playoff series together again.

There are whispers among those who are around the Oilers every day that McDavid may already have peaked, and it’s plausible, but somewhat laughable. The true peak of a forward is that he is in his early to mid-20s in the modern NHL, and McDavid is 27. His goal total has dropped from 64 to 32 this season, and he has just four goals in the playoffs. (There’s also a lot of speculation that he, like many this time of year, is dealing with some sort of nagging injury that might cost him half a step.)

Yet he is still easily the best player in the world. He picked up his 25th assist of the playoffs on Friday night on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ first of two power play goals (the first two PPGs for either team in this series), putting him just six away from tying Wayne Gretzky’s franchise record for assists. in one postseason. If the Oilers reach the Finals, McDavid is a safe bet to break that record. And then you have the entire regular season with 100 assists. This is still a unique talent in the history of the game, still in his overall prime, even if he never quite tops his ridiculous 2022-2023 season. Heck, Dallas rookie Logan Stankoven said he still has to remember to save himself from the star truck when he lines up for a showdown and sees McDavid on the other side. That’s the effect McDavid has, that’s the aura that surrounds him.

He’s been that player his entire career. But this is the first time the Stanley Cup Final is truly within reach. That’s a pressure that mere mortals find difficult to quantify. And even hockey gods can feel the weight of it. How will McDavid handle it? Probably the way he handled everything else: brilliant.

And yet he has never been one win away from the Stanley Cup Final. This will be a lot. Even for him.

“The stakes keep getting higher,” Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch said. “There is a lot of pressure on the players at the moment. … I don’t think it’s time to put more pressure on players to step up and play better, because they know that, they want to perform.

McDavid has always done that. It will probably always remain that way. The weight of his team will rest on his shoulders Sunday in Edmonton; that is always the case. The weight of his legacy will be there too. That’s new.

This is McDavid’s time. He earned it, he deserves it, and the league will be better off for it.

But deep down, he must know, he might not get another one anytime soon.

(Top photo of Connor McDavid: Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)

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