How has this happened so fast?
This is Connor McDavid’s ninth season in the National Hockey League and Auston Matthews’ eighth.
And the most explosive offensive player of this generation and the single greatest goal-scorer of his time, are no closer to winning a Stanley Cup than they’ve ever been before.
This isn’t anything like Guy Lafleur followed by Mike Bossy — one all about flash, the other all about finish — the two winning eight consecutive championships once upon a time.
There is no comparable to McDavid in today’s game and yet the challenge for the Oilers has gotten greater over the years. Vegas is the defending Cup champion and looks capable of winning again. Colorado won two years ago and looks like it could come back this season and win.
Dallas has been to the final and has all the elements of winning a title while Los Angeles, so well-coached, with so much depth down the middle, will be a difficult out as well.
Meanwhile, McDavid’s Oilers fight for a playoff spot and might rank no better sixth or seventh in the West when the season ends.
It’s not much different for Matthews as the Maple Leafs search to find themselves in a conference where they may not stack up so well against a still improving Florida Panthers team, a once-again thriving Carolina Hurricanes, the very deep New York Rangers, and the tight-checking Boston Bruins.
Maybe Matthews’ Leafs will rank fifth or sixth in the East, but a lot defends on what Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Tampa Bay do in the second half of the season.
Who wins the Cup first, McDavid or Matthews? Answer to that question may be none of the above.
THIS AND THAT
Dave Poulin is a terrific guy. Everyone says so. And he knows hockey. Everyone says that, too. But there are a lot of terrific guys in losing situations around the NHL. Just because Poulin is heading to the Ottawa Senators to work under Steve Staios doesn’t mean success is guaranteed. Staios, by the way, is also a terrific guy with a big job now. He has to create a winning culture where there hasn’t been one with the Senators. Poulin spent five years with the Leafs. They missed the playoffs four of those years. The Sens have missed the playoffs eight of the past 10 seasons. The first big move for Staios and Poulin is hiring the right coach. That isn’t Jacques Martin, who also happens to be a fine person, by the way. You won’t find a better person in the NHL than John Davidson. He runs the Columbus Blue Jackets. The team is a mess. Mike Grier in San Jose is a terrific guy. The Sharks have the worst roster in hockey. It’s great to be nice in sports or anywhere else for that matter. But this job is all about winning … To quote someone close to me: Nice is overrated … What a tremendous opening for the Professional Women’s Hockey League. Good crowds in Toronto, Ottawa and Boston. Exceptional TV numbers in Canada. But the success of this league will not be determined by selling this terrific story, by showing photos of little girl hockey players with hope or by a mostly cheerleader media. The quality of the game will matter, the building of fan bases will matter, the potential rivalries will matter. None of that can happen quickly. That’s the long-term challenge for this or any other new league… How much does a third-line centre matter in the Stanley Cup playoffs? A lot, it says here. Vegas had William Karlsson at centre when it won last year’s Cup. Tampa Bay had Yanni Gourde for two championship teams. St. Louis had Tyler Bozak as its third-line centre and, before that, Lars Eller did the job for the Washington Capitals. The job description: To score some, to give up little and supply quality minutes. It’s why some Leafs people are concerned about Max Domi as a third-line playoff centre. Can he be complete the way Gourde was with the Lightning, or Eller with the Caps? … Another reason why many are worried about how good the Winnipeg Jets may be: Captain Adam Lowry centres the Jets’ third line. That’s a team you may not want to match up with at playoff time. … Some of the great third-line playoff centres in history: Craig MacTavish in Edmonton; Doug Risebrough in Montreal; Brent Sutter in his early years with the Islanders before he pushed Butch Goring down the lineup.
HEAR AND THERE
The Blue Jays won a respectable 89 games last season with terrific, healthy pitching, good defence and a wonky offence. But so far, this off-season, they’ve done nothing to improve the offence except to shuffle around a bunch of coaches. In fact, the offence, as it stands right now, is weaker than the one that couldn’t score much against the Minnesota Twins last October. The quiet concern for the Jays has to be the ‘what if’ about their pitching. Last season, Kevin Gausman, Jose Berrios, Chris Bassitt and Yusei Kikuchi all started more than 30 games and, combined, Alek Manoah and Hyun-jin Ryu started 30 as well. Expecting that kind of health two years in a row may be asking too much … In total, Ryu made 60 starts for the Jays in four seasons in Toronto. The Jays played .633 ball when he started, winning 38 of those games. He remains unsigned for the coming season … A baseball player told me years ago that no position was less meaningful on a team than hitting coach. Good hitters hit. Crappy hitters don’t. Occasionally, a Walt Hriniak type of coach can help with an adjustment or style. But it’s not like drilling defensive skills daily or working with pitchers. It’s not much about confidence and a game plan. If you don’t have either, you have no chance … As of today, the Blue Jays starting lineup has Vlad Guerrero Jr., at first base, two of Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Santiago Espinal, Davis Scheider and Cavan Biggio at second and third, Bo Bichette at shortstop, an outfield of George Springer, Kevin Kiermaier and Daulton Varsho, with Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk catching. There are a whole lot of ‘ifs’ in that lineup, no matter what GM Ross Atkins is trying to peddle these days. That could be four below-average hitters in a nine-man batting order … I like Kiermaier. I like the way he plays and approaches the game. But it was hardly encouraging to hear him talk about how little interest there was in him as a free agent.
SCENE AND HEARD
How much did the NBA in-season tournament mean? The Lakers, who won the tournament, have the 19th-best record in the NBA …. Nick Nurse wasn’t happy to see OG Anunoby traded to another Eastern Conference contender. Sounds as if he doesn’t want to match up with the ex-Raptor come playoff time. The Knicks are now 3-0 with OG in the lineup … When teams are publicly declaring they are “out” on Pascal Siakam — as at least one NBA team has done — you know it’s not long in Toronto for the long-serving Raptor … Chris Cuthbert once told me he wasn’t comfortable doing hockey play-by-play until he had done 500 games. He needed the reps to feel that comfortable and develop a style. So, expecting new men or new women to come in and be great doing play-by-play in any sport is expecting the impossible. Dan Shulman, as great a baseball and basketball announcer as you’ll hear, flopped in his first attempt doing Olympic hockey. It’s hard to do … What a solid third NFL season for the Canadian running back, Chuba Hubbard, playing for the rather lousy Carolina Panthers. He’s rushed and caught passes more than 1,000 yards heading into the final week of the season … It’s pretty impossible to do this, but Aaron Dean Eisenberg screwed up the role of Ric Flair in the Von Erichs movie, The Iron Claw. Pretty hard to mess up playing a character who is already playing a character … Until he broke his jaw on Friday night, Connor Bedard looked like he would run away with the rookie-of-the-year award in the NHL. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a terrific rookie class overall: Among those not far behind Bedard are Minnesota defenceman Brock Faber, Jersey defenceman Luke Hughes, Columbus centre Adam Fantilli and emerging Calgary forward Connor Zary.
AND ANOTHER THING
Best running backs I’ve ever seen: Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Tony Dorsett, O.J. Simpson, Derrick Henry, Eric Dickerson, Bo Jackson, Adrian Peterson and Thurman Thomas … I wish I saw more of Jim Brown and Gale Sayers … Aaron Rodgers is on a short list of both the greatest quarterbacks to ever play and the least likeable human beings around … It’s a bad rule in the NFL when Dalvin Cook can force his way to get cut late in the season and sign on in Baltimore for the last week of the schedule. The NFL needs a roster-freeze date right after the trade deadline that most sports have … I have no answer for this: What’s worse, NFL officiating or NHL officiating? … What a great app ESPN+ is. You get every NHL game in the U.S. for less than $11 a month … NFL coaches expected to be fired on Black Monday: Washington’s Ron Rivera; Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel (whom I’d hire in a second); Chicago’s Matt Eberflus; New Orleans’ Dennis Allen; Atlanta’s Arthur Smith and maybe the Jets’ Robert Saleh (whom I’d also keep) … If Bill Belichick leaves the Patriots, which seems probable, I suspect they’ll refer to the decision as a mutual parting of the ways … When time gets closer to the NHL trade deadline and the Leafs are looking to upgrade their roster, don’t be the least bit surprised if opponents ask for speedy Noah Gregor in any kind of package. Gregor has impressed a bevy of NHL scouts this season … Did you know that 34-year-old Drew Doughty, the future Hall of Famer, leads the NHL in ice-time again this season. And it’s no coincidence that the Kings rank first in the NHL in goals against … How important can structure be for a player? In the NHL, with structure in Boston, rookie Matthew Poitras looks solid with the Bruins. Without a lot of structure on junior Team Canada, he was barely noticeable …Happy birthday to Edwin Encarnacion (41), Kevin Gausman (33), Lamar Jackson (27), Eric Gagne (48), Paul Reinhart (64), Noah Dobson (24), Mike Liut (68), Gilbert Arenas (42), Ndamunkong Su (37), Charles Haley (60), Corey Conners (32), Lewis Hamilton (39), Howie Long (64), Lou Holtz (87) and Chris Streveler (29) … And, hey, whatever became of Jake Plummer?
SUPER BOWL WINS SET BILL BELICHICK APART
If this is the end for Bill Belichick as head coach of the New England Patriots, with it ends the most successful and incredible run in pro football history.
It isn’t necessarily the numbers of wins Belichick has had in 24 seasons in New England.
Others such as Don Shula in Miami, Tom Landry in Dallas and Andy Reid in both Philadelphia and Kansas City are not that many wins behind while coaching one team. Shula coached 33 years in Baltimore and Miami, won more games, but won half as many Super Bowls as Beliichick.
That’s the distinction for Belichick and everyone else. Shula won two Super Bowls with the Dolphins. Landry won two with the Cowboys. Reid has two with the Chiefs.
Belichick has six championship rings from the Patriots and lost three Super Bowls, two of which he should have won.
How much of that was quarterback Tom Brady and how much was Belichick? Brady went on to win another Super Bowl outside New England. If Belichick continues coaching — and I suspect he will — what he does will tell even more of his story.
You don’t have to like him or his ways or his attitude or his skirting of the rules or his disregard for the daily media sessions most coaches just put up with, you do have to realize who he is and what he is.
Every sport has one. It’s Scotty Bowman in hockey. It’s probably Casey Stengel in baseball or the modern version, Bruce Bochy. It’s Phil Jackson in the NBA. In football, today, and maybe forever, it’s Belichick. The new Lombardi.
X — @simmonssteve