While there are exceptions here and there, when it comes to truly great players, the common denominator isn’t the fastest feet, the softest hands or the highest hockey IQ, although every one of those traits matter. For me, what separates the very best from the rest is having a raging competitive fire in the belly that burns hot no matter what the circumstances.
That’s exactly what we’re seeing from Connor McDavid down the stretch as the Edmonton Oilers wind down a season in which they fell from playoff contention long ago. Here and now, with games meaning nothing in terms of the standings, we’re seeing McDavid at his very best. Phone it in? Not a chance. Play out the string in a season that’s been a monumental disappointment? No way. Instead, we’ve seen McDavid charge into the lead in the NHL scoring race for the Art Ross Trophy, blowing by Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning like he’s tied to a post.
With a goal and two assists in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Anaheim Ducks at Rogers Place Sunday, McDavid leads the NHL scoring race with 39-60-99. In 13 games dating back to March 1, McDavid has scored 11-13-24. If you go back to Feb. 1, he’s put up 24-21-45 in his last 27 games. Some people call this garbage time, when the games don’t matter. I don’t buy it, not with No. 97.
The thing is, we saw exactly the same balls-out performance from McDavid down the stretch a year ago when results meant everything and every point mattered with the Oilers pushing for their first playoff spot in a decade. In his last 13 games a year ago, McDavid scored 6-18-24. He was at his very best when the team needed him most. He’s again at his very best with none of the same chips on the table. He’ll win the Art Ross Trophy. The Hart? We’ve touched on that before. The debate continues. McDavid has no say in what voters do. He’s having his say on the ice.
All the competitive fire in the world won’t turn a plugger, a try-hard guy without enough skill, into an elite player. I know lots of players who were competitive as hell and made it to the NHL with modest skills based on their work ethic and competitiveness. Take that fire and add it to the level of skill McDavid is blessed with and you get what we’ve got here. Watching this has been a thing of beauty during an unquestionably ugly season.
THAT BEAR KID
When you’re talking about a fifth-round pick draft pick who is only 20 years old, a defenceman no less, history tells us it makes no sense to read too much into a 13-game stretch, be it good or bad. That much we know. That said, I’m guessing Ethan Bear has looked for more ready at this point in his development during his stint with the Oilers than anybody expected.
Bear scored his first NHL goal on a sweet feed from McDavid against the Ducks, sneaking down from the point on the power play to fire a one-timer past John Gibson for a 4-3 lead. He also picked up an assist, giving him 1-3-4 in the 13 games he’s played since being summoned from Bakersfield of the AHL.
“We were just cycling it around for a bit trying to open up lanes and that time came when I went down,” Bear said. “Connor made a nice pass and I just tried to bear down and I put it in and it was a good feeling after that . . . it’s a play I’m going to remember for the rest of my life for sure.” You can listen to the full interview here.
Bear continues to show terrific offensive instincts. More often than not he makes the right play when he has the puck and he has a knack, as was the case against Anaheim, of going to the right spots on the ice. That goes for even strength and on the power play. His defensive game has been better than I expected – not perfect by any stretch, but pretty good for a youngster who is just getting his feet wet.
That doesn’t mean GM Pete Chiarelli or coach Todd McLellan should approach the off-season assuming Bear will be ready to be a fixture on the back end next season. We’ve seen players look good in short stretches before only to fade or take a step back, but his performance to date has been an eye-opener for me.
AND . . .
A stick tap today for hockey trailblazer Robin Bawa, who is celebrating his 52nd birthday. Bawa, a member of the Kamloops Blazer teams I covered in the WHL in the 1980s, became the first Punjabi player to make it to the NHL when he made his debut with the Washington Capitals during the 1989-90 season. I wrote about him here. I’d like to believe people don’t even think about race or ethnicity these days, but the journey to the NHL was a far tougher road to navigate when Bawa came up through the ranks.
RECENTLY BY ROBIN BROWNLEE
- Three Thoughts: RNH Not Going Anywhere
- Watching Connor
- Milan Lucic: The Smart Play
- Top 10 Who Got Away: Roman Hamrlik
- Three Thoughts: Connor
- At Random: Success