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Generational greatness

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

LAS VEGAS - There will be a temptation on Wednesday night to view this is a passing of the torch, a turning of the historical page if you will.

And to be sure if, as we believe will be the case, Connor McDavid walks off stage in Las Vegas with his first-ever Hart Trophy as league MVP it will reconfirm the 20-year-old's status as a generational talent.

No argument there.

That the Edmonton Oilers star center will have bested Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby (along with Columbus netminder Sergei Bobrovsky) in earning the league's most important individual award in just his second NHL season makes for a nice juicy narrative; the young superstar in waiting making a bold statement by shouldering the elder superstar to the side.

Except that's not how this figures to play out.

The fact that Crosby, who will turn 30 in August, isn't anywhere close to slowing down, let alone stepping aside for anyone regardless of whether they're named McDavid or not, may make for a better storyline moving forward.

"I think what we're doing here is we're talking about the level of play that both players get to," said Oilers coach Todd McLellan, who coaches McDavid in Edmonton and who coached Crosby at the 2015 World Championships when he was head coach of Team Canada. "They're both dominant and they're both great ambassadors for the game. They both did it at a very young age," McLellan said. "They both understand their role as ambassadors for the game so there's a tremendous amount of similarities between the two, but the difference is that they're their own person."

Patrice Bergeron has a great perspective on the intersection of two such talents.

Bergeron, nominated for a sixth straight year for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the game's best two-way forward, roomed with Crosby at the 2005 World Junior Championships and mentored the teenage junior sensation during the tournament won by Team Canada.

"I like to think it's not that long ago," Bergeron said laughing. "Yeah, it's crazy the things he's accomplished as a player. And he still wants more. That's the other thing. He keeps pressing, he keeps doing things that I guess people don't necessarily think he's capable of doing. He's a special player but also a special person."

That's not to say there isn't reason to be excited about what McDavid, like Crosby a first overall draft pick, and his peers represent.

"First of all, I think it's great for the league having some terrific young players coming up every year and doing great," added Bergeron who played on a line with Crosby at the World Cup of Hockey tournament won by Canada last fall. "I'm not saying it happens every year that you have the leading scorer being a 19-year-old (McDavid turned 20 in January), but still there's a lot of really good young players coming up and it's good for the league. But I don't think Sid is ready to really hand over the torch yet. I don't think we're there quite yet."

Sometime down the road perhaps we will be able to debate the relative greatness of two of the game's foremost offensive talents.

And at some point, we may examine their impact on the game and on their respective franchises and we will talk in mythic Howe/Orr/Richard/Gretzky terms.

But let's make something very clear. As good as McDavid is and as great as his promise suggests he will become, it's far too soon to engage in any meaningful measurements of one against the other.

McDavid, named captain before the start of this season, is the catalyst to a long-awaited renaissance in Edmonton after a long decade of failure and disappointment. He's not saving the franchise necessarily, but he's breathed new life into the City of Champions.

And to be sure he's at the forefront of a new generation of exciting stars that includes Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, William Nylander and others.

But McDavid doesn't carry the same kind of burden Crosby shouldered when he entered the league in 2005 after the NHL had lost an entire season to a labor dispute.

Not only was Crosby tasked with reviving a moribund Pittsburgh franchise, he and long-time alter ego Alex Ovechkin were anointed the face of a league desperate to rebound from the season-long work stoppage.

McDavid gets that. All great players have a strong sense of self and a strong sense of their place in history and in fact, his candor on the eve of the awards about his place in this discussion suggests that there is much that unites he and Crosby. Both are intensely competitive. Both are determined to put the team first even though the demands on them as stars set them apart.

McDavid was asked Tuesday if he measures himself against Crosby who is a decade older.

"That's a good question. I mean, I don't know if I measure myself against Crosby," he said. "I'm doing my thing and he's doing his thing and everyone is doing that. The media does a lot of that for us. For me personally, I try not to buy into it."

Still, it's clear that McDavid is determined to get better and that means learning from the best. He described how he has watched Crosby, not just in terms of how he performs in crucial situations, but also how he handles himself away from the rink and in dealing with the media.

"I mean, he just finds a way to get it done," McDavid said Tuesday. "He finds a way to win for his team. You can definitely watch and take some notes, some mental pointers in things he's doing in certain situations. Every situation is different, but obviously when you win two Cups back to back and you win two Conn Smythes back to back, you're obviously doing something right. I've got to try to figure out what it is he's doing."

Crosby is coming off one of the greatest single years in hockey history with twin Stanley Cup wins, twin playoff MVP honors, a World Cup of Hockey championship win and MVP turn there and two berths on the Hart Trophy ballot.

McDavid is coming off a scoring championship and a possible MVP award. The Oilers also made the playoffs for the first time since 2006 and lost in seven games to Anaheim in the second round of the playoffs.

"I always had people say, 'What if you did this? What if you won this?' I always brushed it off, like I don't even think about it," McDavid said. "But to be in my second year and to win the Art Ross and to be up for a few other awards, it's so special."

In the lead-up to the first-ever meeting between McDavid and Crosby this past season (McDavid was injured and missed playing against Pittsburgh in his rookie season), we talked to Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky about McDavid and Matthews, and their impact on the game relative to the iconic Crosby.

Gretzky was unequivocal; he praised both McDavid and Matthews (who is the odds-on favorite to win rookie of the year honors Wednesday in Las Vegas) but Gretzky said that Crosby remains the best player in the world. Simple as that. And until someone knocks him off the top of the hill that will remain the case, Gretzky said.

A Hart Trophy win for McDavid over Crosby doesn't change that equation one iota. Not yet at least.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB

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