The incredible play this season from both Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews reignited another round of the time-honoured debate as to who the best player in the game is.
After watching McDavid lead the Edmonton Oilers to a come-from-behind 5-4 overtime win against the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano made his thoughts on the debate public to his 330 thousand followers on Twitter.
He’s the best in the game @cmcdavid97.
— Mike Modano (@9modano) October 17, 2018
As far as Modano is concerned, McDavid has held that title for a while now.
“I think he has been for the last few years and I base my opinion on the ability to do things at a hundred miles an hour,” Modano told the Sporting News in a phone interview on Wednesday. “He just does things at top speed and I’ve always been an advocate of guys who can keep their top end speed and handle the puck at the same time.”
McDavid, coming off consecutive seasons in which he claimed the Art Ross Trophy with 100 and 108 points, factored in on each of the Edmonton Oilers first nine goals this season, until Darnell Nurse scored the overtime winner against the Jets, assisted solely by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. It broke the record of seven held by Adam Oates back in 1986-1987 with the Detroit Red Wings.
Modano, who had 561 goals and 1374 points in 1499 NHL games, said the list of players he has seen that can handle the puck and make plays at top speed the way McDavid can is extremely limited and it’s what sets him apart.
Only Pavel Bure, Alex Mogilny, Pat LaFontaine, Sergei Fedorov came to mind in terms of players Modano faced with that skill set. As for current players with that ability, Modano pointed to Nathan MacKinnon and Sidney Crosby — the difference being that McDavid’s top speed is higher than everyone else’s top speed.
“Their speed doesn’t slow down once they get the puck,” Modano said. “That’s a big part that I look at.”
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There is no denying that at the end of the day shooting the puck in the net is what it is all about, though, regardless of how you do it. And Matthews has done it a lot, putting up 84 goals in his first 151 NHL games. Matthews leads the NHL in goals with 10 and points with 16 through games up to Oct. 15. He scored in each of his first six games and became just the fifth player in NHL history to record at least two points in each of his team’s first seven games.
While he is not at the top, Matthews is still very high on Modano’s list.
“Auston is top five for sure, probably top three,” Modano said. “I think MacKinnon will slowly come into that debate. After that, I think it’s really hard.”
What impresses Modano most about Matthews?
“I think he probably is the best player in the game as far as when he is in traffic,” Modano said. “He does have phenomenal set of hands, they may be the quickest just from the standpoint of making a move in tight and getting the puck up or getting it off in the slot when you don’t feel you have a second to get it cocked before shooting.
“From that aspect, I think he’s, down around the net, behind the net, he’s a guy that can make some plays, he seems for me more of a traffic guy that can do a lot of good things in traffic.”
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The biggest reason Matthews is emerging as one of the most, if not the most, prolific goal scorer of his generation, Modano feels, is the deceptiveness of his shot.
“He’s able to pull it in tight. His lie is pretty high on his stick and he can get it off by his feet which is really good, but it seems like he has a long reach as well. He has a variety of ways to get a shot off which is equally as hard to guard against or defend.”
Matthews got off to his hot start despite being just 75th among forwards in average ice time through Tuesday at 18:27 per game in seven games. Comparatively, McDavid leads all forwards at 23:24 per game through four contests. Matthews also leads the NHL in even-strength points with 11 (six goals, five assists) and scored his ten goals on just 22 shots.
The efficiency is staggering for Matthews, though he likely will not score at a 45% clip the whole season.
“I don’t know if it’s anything he’s done differently in his play per say, I think it’s just a level of confidence knowing now that he can make the plays he wants and still get scoring chances,” said Modano, when asked if he has noticed Matthews make any subtle changes to his style of play this season.
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“I think it’s a growth and confidence. He’s playing with some pep in his step and he’s getting rewarded for some hard work. When you have a start like that to the season, it just sets the tone and you’re able to ride it for a good long time.”
So with McDavid atop his list, and with Matthews and MacKinnon in some order behind him, who rounds out Modano’s top five?
“I think Sidney Crosby gets in there because of his track record,” Modano said. “When you’re trying to throw a list together you throw him in because of everything he’s accomplished. He still has that knack for doing great things and that drive and will to win which is stronger than anything.
“I think you throw Patrick Kane in there for top five, I don’t know if (Alex) Ovechkin makes the top five anymore, but it’s hard to say because he still keeps doing it over and over.”
Consider Mike Modano among those who loved Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane’s dueling hand-to-ear celly’s last week in Chicago.#LeafsForever #Blackhawks #NHL pic.twitter.com/MbLIGL5m8k
— Dave McCarthy (@DaveAMcCarthy) October 17, 2018