Connor McDavid vs. Auston Matthews set to become NHL rivalry for the ages

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Legendary hockey player Wayne Gretzky discusses the two of the NHL’s most exciting young players.
USA TODAY Sports

When Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid and Toronto Maple Leafs rookie sensation Auston Matthews play against each other for the first time in an NHL game Tuesday in Toronto it will be a feature presentation and a blockbuster preview of coming attractions.

“They could end up being the faces of the NHL,” Nashville Predators general manager David Poile said.

Both are 19 and were selected No. 1 overall, McDavid in the 2015 draft and Matthews in 2016. McDavid leads the NHL in scoring with five goals and seven assists for 12 points; Matthews is third with six goals and four assists for 10 points. The excitement over what these players are doing today is exceeded only by the wonder of what they will accomplish in the future.

“This reminds me when Sid and Ovi walked into the dance at the same time,” Calgary Flames president Brian Burke said.

Alex Ovechkin was a 20-year-old Washington Capitals rookie when he finished third in the scoring race in 2005-06, and Sidney Crosby was an 18-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins wunderkind when he finished sixth.

Canadian McDavid and American Matthews seem to be raising the bar even higher for younger players. McDavid is in his second season, though it feels like his first because he missed 37 games with a fractured clavicle. He became the youngest captain in league history when the Oilers awarded him the “C” on Oct. 5.

Wayne Gretzky has said McDavid is the best 19-year-old player he has ever seen. Gretzky told USA TODAY Sports that McDavid is better than he was at 19.

“I say that because I never saw Bobby Orr, and I didn’t see Gordie Howe at 19,” Gretzky said. “But I’ve seen everybody else at 19.”

Gretzky says Crosby is the league’s best player, but what makes McDavid better than Crosby at 19 is that “he has this extra gear with speed that I’ve never seen from a hockey player before.”

“Connor McDavid has the most pace with the puck as anyone I’ve ever seen,” Carolina Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said. “More than Sid. I know that for a fact. I’ve coached them both. It is unbelievable. The puck doesn’t slow (McDavid) down. I feel like when I coached him or against, he can make a game-changing play on every shift.”

Matthews and McDavid are being viewed as equals in terms of the impact they will have on their team, but, at least for now, McDavid is viewed as the scarier talent.

Burke said McDavid is the most explosive skater he has seen since Pavel Bure in the 1990s.

“Matthews is more workmanlike, less sizzle, but still making a huge impact,” Burke said. “They are two studs who are already impact players.”

“Let’s acknowledge there is a difference, although it is razor thin,” said draft analyst Craig Button, who has been evaluating NHL talent since 1988.

Button said Matthews is an exceptional skater, but doesn’t generate the same explosive speed. “What separates McDavid is his ability to execute at incredible speed,” Button said.

He added McDavid combines “the brain of Gretzky, the hands of (Mario) Lemieux and the skating of Bure into one package. … Matthews is that complete, complete, elite centerman in the Bryan Trottier mold.”

Another comparison that Button likes for Matthews is Ron Francis, fifth on the NHL’s all-time points list.

“I never thought Ron got the credit he deserved for being that complete dominant center offensively and defensively,” Button said. “And when it is all said and done that’s Auston Matthews. I’m not saying he’s not going to be recognized. I’m just saying that he’s going to be that industrious, purposeful, consistent player who doesn’t always move the dial in terms of excitement. But really helps you become a top team.”

In nine games this season, McDavid has four multiple-point games, and Matthews has a four-goal game (in his NHL debut) among three multiple-point games. Matthews’ jersey is the hottest seller in the NHL, and McDavid’s ranks No. 3.

With both stars playing in hockey-crazed Canada, the hype is off the chart.

“Last season was like a low water mark, almost ever in Canada, when none of the Canadian teams made the playoffs,” Poile said. “This year it has turned around, and it starts with these younger players.”

What no one disputes is that Matthews is at least as important, if not more important, to American hockey than McDavid is to Canadian hockey.

The Canadiens are the reigning Olympic, world championships and World Cup of Hockey gold medalists.  The Americans, meanwhile, have disappointed. They are already penciling in Matthews to be their No. 1 center for the 2018 Olympics if NHL players are allowed to participate.

“They are different players because one is built on speed and the other is about savvy, size and strength,” Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. “But (Matthews’) effectiveness could be just as good.”

McDavid is eight months older than Matthews whose Sept. 17 birthday was only two days later than the cutoff for the 2015 draft.

“It’s amazing to watch the evolution of the game with the young players,” said Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill. “I think they are more worldly. They have played in pressure situations before they came to the NHL. They have played in the under-18 worlds and world junior championships. They are not nervous, or hesitant, when they get to the NHL because they have been exposed to this already.”

Paul Henry is a former NHL scout who now works as a sports psychologist with a scouting emphasis. He says Matthews and McDavid both took different routes to land at the same place in terms of their equally effective ability to handle stardom.

“Auston grew up in Arizona where no one knows anything about hockey compared with McDavid who has been under a microscope in Canada since he was nine,” Henry said.

Henry said that is less important than the fact that they both had athletic fathers who had a positive influence on their careers.

“I like what (former NBA star) Charles Barkley says: ‘Pressure is what I put in my tires,’ ” Henry said. “That’s the attitude both of them need.”

Henry said both have already earned respect from opponents because of their performance  and how they have handled their success.

“I remember playing against Bobby Orr in his first year of major junior and we were all going to kill him because of the press he got,” Henry said. “We were jealous. But by the end of the first period, we had instant respect for him. You are seeing the exact same thing for these guys.”

Players all understand that McDavid and Matthews have the ability to grow the game.

“It was Bobby Orr for a while, and then Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux,” Nill said. “Then it was Crosby, Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. These are the next generational players coming up.”

Contributing: Larry Berger, USA TODAY Sports

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