Long Live King McDavid: Can The NHL Capitalize On His Stardom?
The King is dead. Long live the King.
The NHL begins the interregnum this week as Connor McDavid commences his takeover of the the NHL’s alpha dog from Sidney Crosby. Yes, Crosby is still a great player. Yes, Crosby led Canada to the World Cup title. Yes, he may yet lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to another Stanley Cup.
This has nothing to do with Crosby's concussion, announced Monday. But as anyone watching the World Cup knows, hockey lovers wanted McDavid and his NHL invention, Team Under-23, to win the tournament. They played an open, appealing style of hockey in upsetting a few of the established hockey nations of the world. McDavid was as advertised: Dynamic, creative and charismatic in a way Crosby has never quite been.
In a time when great coaches like Mike Babcock have reduced the sport to watching an assembly line, McDavid gives the faint hope that, harnessed to the proper coach, he might give fans the same frisson of joy that Wayne Gretzky brought to a league that looked like a street brawl most nights.
How terrific is McDavid? The Newmarket, Ont., product is so skilled, so imposing a talent, that many believe the Edmonton Oilers will not be able to ruin him the way they have ruined the previous No. 1 picks in the past decade. This is not to be taken lightly. Since last spring, the Oilers have traded away two of their junk-bond No. 1 overall picks (Taylor Hall, Nail Yakopov) and a second-round pick (Justin Schultz, Anaheim’s pick in 2008) for Adam Larsson, a 2016 third rounder, a conditional third-round pick and a player in the ECHL.
In hockey-wonk talk this is called terrible asset management. Like trading a couple of Teslas for a Prius, two used cars and spare parts. In an era where NHL GMs will sell their mothers for a No. 1 overall pick, Edmonton has had four in the past six years. Other teams offered generous packages for the right to take Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov and Hall. But the Oilers said no.
And then did squat with them. Since drafting Hall in 2010, Edmonton has won 25, 32, 19 (lockout season), 29, 24 and 21 games. They did not come within sniffing distance of the playoffs in any year. They averaged a stunning 261 goals against per season in the five full seasons since drafting Hall. Then brazenly bellied up to the draft tables to try again. It all belied the NHL’s parity fantasy that says you must reward incompetent managements with the best prospects.
More than the egregious waste of the No. 1 overall picks was the development of those precious picks. In an atmosphere that can only be described as desperate, McDavid hints that he’ll rise above the mediocrity generated by Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish and now Peter Chiarelli (in his defence he just got there in 2015). Oilers management always seemed to believe that its mojo from the 1980s was a get-out-of-jail-free card. As Lowe said when criticized for his reign of error, I have six Stanley Cup rings. What have you got?
A story from Team Canada sums up the Oilers’ delusions. Edmonton offered Hall to Team Canada for one of the world championships that NHL players missing the postseason play each May. It was expected that Hall would be a first liner. So Oilers officials were miffed to see Hall playing junk minutes on the fourth line. They complained. The response: Hall was largely uncoachable after his time in the Oilers’ system.
But now Chiarelli (who was GM for Boston’s 2011 Stanley Cup winners) has cleared the decks of much of the Lowe/ MacTavish-era damage. McDavid, like Mario Lemieux or Crosby, screams out that he’s too good for even Edmonton to ruin. Salvation may, at least, be at hand for Edmonton’s suffering fans who at least have a gorgeous new arena in which to watch their team.
The problem now is for the NHL. In an era where the NBA is eating its lunch with the star power of Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, the NHL has its next superstar stuck in northern Alberta, playing games that don’t begin till 9 PM ET. Even if McDavid does rise above the swamp, will anyone but hockey sweats even notice? How does he move the ratings needle in Canada or the U.S. playing the late HNIC doubleheader game?
In short, the NHL has the problem of how to market its young superstar in a small Canadian city that operates on Mountain time. Similarly, young American star Johnny Gaudreau, who was also a star at the WC, plays in Calgary (for now). Yes, Gretzky played in Alberta. But that was the 1980s. Sports business has changed since then. The new fan wants to see the great stars all the time. Greatness is defined by marrying your brand to that of a great team’s brand.
ESPN understands that in the NBA. It assigns a fulltime designated writer to LeBron James or Curry in whatever city they’re playing. They know the public can never get too much of a great thing. McDavid? He gets the beat reporters from Edmonton filing hours after the east goes to bed.
If it can’t play the McDavid card properly the NHL is in danger of being its same-old self for another decade. Not the worst fate. But a far cry from Gary Bettman’s dreams of glory he’s selling to expansion teams. And far from what the NBA would do with McDavid.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).