The comparisons are inevitable. Connor McDavid understands it. So does Sidney Crosby.
Franchise centers don’t come along very often. Particularly ones with the skill set McDavid seems to share with the player he grew up idolizing. The footwork. The soft hands. The relentless energy. The ability to see something before it happens and the talent to make it so.
A decade ago, it was Crosby who took the NHL by storm. Now it’s McDavid’s turn. A year removed from an injury-marred rookie season in Edmonton, the 19-year-old will get a chance to face Crosby for the first time on Tuesday when the Oilers visit the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Both players, as is their habit, are trying to downplay the meeting. Still, Crosby has a keen sense of where McDavid is at in his blossoming career and the weight placed on his shoulders. Back in 2006, Crosby was trying to do for the Penguins what McDavid is trying to do for the Oilers: lift a once proud team back to relevance, one highlight-reel play at a time.
Listen to Crosby rattle off the things that impress him about McDavid, and the two-time Hart Trophy winner might as well be describing himself.
“I just think his speed stands out the most,” Crosby said. “It allows him to do so many other things. He sees the ice really well. He’s so strong on the puck. His hockey sense and his speed are the things that stand out the most.”
They’ve been on display with regularity so far for Edmonton, which sits atop the Pacific Division, a solid start for a team trying to end a playoff drought that stretches back to when McDavid was still in elementary school. McDavid is tied for fourth in the NHL in points (14) and seventh in assists (nine), including a patient, heady dish to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the power play on Sunday that turned into the winning goal in a 2-1 victory in Detroit.
“He’s obviously one of the bright young players in the league,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “I’m sure that team has taken another step and he’s a big reason why.”
Just don’t expect Sullivan do his part to make sure Crosby’s No. 87 ends up in the faceoff circle with McDavid’s No. 97. (Oh, there’s another similarity: both players using the year of their birth as their respective jersey numbers).
“I don’t really think too much about drama,” Sullivan said.
Besides, Crosby’s return to the lineup after a concussion that sidelined him for a few weeks last month has made the environment in Pittsburgh decidedly drama-free. The Penguins haven’t lost in regulation since Crosby came back (5-0-1), and the player who loves nothing more than to set up a teammate has suddenly become a little selfish, in a good way.
Crosby has eight goals in six games, including two each in the final two games of a road swing through California.
“Nothing surprises us,” Sullivan said. “He’s just a great player. I don’t know how else to say it. I think we’ve grown to expect it out of him and he’s done it each and every night. I really admire his consistency of play.”
And that more than anything else may be what McDavid wants to emulate about Crosby above all else.
“He’s the best player in the world and if you can take anything from his game, obviously that’ll help,” McDavid said.
Though they’ve run into each other occasionally in random places, Crosby hasn’t gone out of his way to reach out and give McDavid advice. Crosby doesn’t want to overstep, pointing out the Oilers have veterans to help guide McDavid as he navigates his first full season after a broken collarbone limited him to 45 games as a rookie.
Still, if there was one piece of advice Crosby will impart, it’s this: tune out the hype and just do what you do.
“The biggest thing is learning on the fly, see what works for you,” Crosby said. “Just remember what got you to this point and try to continue that success.”
AP Hockey Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed to this report.