Connor McDavid doesn’t lend the comparison much credence.
The phenom placed under a microscope from an early age. The young professional who easily and gracefully defied already outsized projections. A generational talent tucked into one of his sport’s smaller markets.
“I think if you’re going to make the comparison of LeBron James to me, I think we’re obviously a little bit different,” said McDavid, 24, the do-everything center for the Edmonton Oilers. “He’s won countless titles and been to the finals a bunch of years and I haven’t done any of that. I definitely have a lot to learn still and that’s kind of where I come, that’s what I think about it.”
McDavid’s penchant to be understated does not allow him to spend much time on the topic. But some obvious parallels exist between McDavid and James. Like James in the open court, a sense of anticipatory excitement develops whenever McDavid and the puck meet in space.
“As soon as he gets it, you’re thinking he’s going to score,” said Mike Smith, Edmonton’s veteran goalie, happy to now watch McDavid race away from him instead of toward him like earlier in his career. “The way he can create space for himself, the way he can hold his edges and the way he can generate speed with the puck is like nobody else.”
And like James earlier in his career, McDavid’s singular artistry and impact are unparalleled as he seeks a postseason breakthrough. James did not claim the first of his four N.B.A. championships until his ninth season.
McDavid totaled an astonishing 105 points, with 33 goals and 72 assists, during last season’s pandemic-truncated 56-game schedule only for the Winnipeg Jets to quickly dispatch Edmonton from the playoffs in a first-round sweep.
If he maintained his 1.88 points per game from 2021 over a traditional 82-game season, that would translate to 154 points, putting McDavid in rarefied territory with the likes of Wayne Gretzky, to whom McDavid has seemingly been compared with ever since he picked up a stick as a kid. McDavid claimed his second Hart Trophy, doing so unanimously and joining Gretzky as the only players to sweep the award for the most valuable player.
“Each and every year, you’re always saying, ‘I don’t know how he’s going to take it to another level,’” said Darnell Nurse, an Edmonton defenseman. “He always finds another way to do it and last year was the perfect example of that.”
Edmonton squandered one of its best regular seasons during McDavid’s tenure in 2021, finishing 35-19-2.
The Oilers have captured just one playoff series, a first-round victory over San Jose in 2017, during McDavid’s six N.H.L. seasons. The franchise had missed the playoffs every year before that series win, a drought that started after their loss in the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, which is roughly how they ended up with the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft that scored McDavid in the first place.
The goal remains the same as when McDavid arrived in Edmonton as a fresh-faced teenager pinned with the hopes of a franchise: to restore the downhearted Oilers to their Gretzky-era level of prominence.
“I don’t think we’re the young guys anymore, but we were always considered a young team and we were always just kind of finding our way together and we’ve kind of done that and learned our lessons and I think now it’s time for us to put the whole thing together and kind of grow up in a sense,” McDavid said.
McDavid will again pace Edmonton, along with another former Hart winner, Leon Draisaitl. Ken Holland, Edmonton’s general manager, engaged in a busy off-season in adding defensemen Cody Ceci and Duncan Keith, and forwards Warren Foegele, Zach Hyman and Derek Ryan.
McDavid is the highest-paid player in the N.H.L. and in the fourth year of an eight-year contract worth $100 million, but counts himself as one of the players who needs to better himself for Edmonton to have a successful postseason, even as his play leaves him largely peerless.
“I’m just as responsible as the next guy, and I think my game is also needed to change for us to be successful and it still needs to change, and so I own that,” McDavid said.
McDavid, cautiously and carefully, is making it a point to be more vocal, exemplified by his recently calling out the defense of Christopher Tanev of the Calgary Flames as “dangerous” or even agreeing to a relatively rare one-on-one interview.
“For me, on the media side of things, I’ve always been a little bit quieter and just kind of did enough just to get by,” McDavid said. “I was still just trying to find my place in the game and find my place in the hockey world. As far as heading into my seventh year, I’m just starting to feel comfortable and feel like I can maybe share my opinion a little bit and not get told to go shove it somewhere, and that’s OK too, if that happens, but just feeling more comfortable and feeling a little bit better about using my voice and sharing what I have, some of my opinions on things.”
Nurse, who lived with McDavid at the start of his N.H.L. career, affirmed that McDavid is full of personality behind the scenes.
“He’s lived in a spotlight since his teenage years of being the top hockey player in Canada and then in the world,” Nurse said. “So, he has lived in that spotlight for so long. And with that spotlight comes a lot of expectations. The thing that makes him so special is he doesn’t have to say much to get his point across.”
McDavid is the face of his sport and now it may be seen more widely across the United States.
This season, ESPN will nationally broadcast N.H.L. games for the first time in 16 years, along with Turner Sports. Edmonton is scheduled to play nine nationally televised games, including six on Turner, more than any other team on the network. Gretzky, the standard-bearer, stepped down as Edmonton’s vice chairman in May and will be a studio analyst for Turner.
“We kind of feel like a small-town team, just in a sense that we’re not the biggest market in the world, but for us to get that national TV time, and in the States too, I think it’s exciting for us. I think, we want to become one of those teams that everyone wants to watch,” McDavid said.
Gretzky has predicted that it’s not a matter of if McDavid will hoist the Stanley Cup, but when. McDavid’s teammates are finished predicting what type of ceiling exists.
“From an outsider, you see the highlights every single night, but what people don’t understand is the stuff he does that doesn’t get put on, where he does things game in and game out,” Smith said. “Three or four times a game, you’re kind of looking at the bench and everybody’s looking at each other going, ‘Did you see that?’”
Some of McDavid’s off-seasons are spent refining the quieter components of his game like faceoffs. He asked Nurse to train with him this summer to build momentum for the new season. “His dedication and his attention to detail, really, there is no way to have expectations for the year ahead because you just never know what he can bring,” Nurse said.
One of the areas McDavid hopes to improve is his defense, which begged the hypothetical question:
How would McDavid stop McDavid?
“I’m not answering that question,” he replied. “I’m not giving away any secrets.”
Even a no-ceiling superstar like McDavid has his limits.