It’s 2005-06 all over again for Wayne Gretzky when it comes to youngsters Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews making their NHL playoff debuts.
The Great One couldn’t help but share his enthusiasm in a text to The Associated Press, comparing McDavid and Matthews’ arrival on the postseason stage with the same buzz generated during Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin’s rookie seasons.
“It’s just one of the best things that has happened to the NHL since Crosby and Ovechkin,” Gretzky wrote. “Should be fun for all.”
The comparison isn’t far off so far given how McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers’ second-year captain, and Matthews, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ rookie of the year candidate, have taken the league by storm.
McDavid in 2015 and Matthews last year were selected with the No. 1 pick in consecutive drafts, as were Ovechkin (2004) and Crosby (2005).
Gretzky also has ties to both McDavid and Matthews. Aside from playing for the Oilers, he is now a team partner and vice chairman. He also coached the Arizona Coyotes last decade and made an impression on Matthews, who is from Scottsdale, Arizona.
McDavid is considered an MVP finalist after leading the league with 100 points, and helping the Oilers end a 10-year playoff drought. Matthews led NHL rookies with 40 goals and 69 points in helping the youth-laden Maple Leafs make the jump from dead last a year ago to 14th and clinch the franchise’s second playoff berth in 12 seasons.
McDavid had an assist in a 3-2 overtime series-opening loss to San Jose on Wednesday, and said the Oilers lacked finish.
“I don’t know whether they raised their game or our game fell off,” McDavid said. “I thought maybe we got a little comfortable, which can’t happen.”
Matthews was making his playoff debut on Thursday at Washington. Before the game, Matthews shared Gretzky’s excitement about McDavid and other young stars getting their first taste of the playoffs.
“For a second year in the league, you see a lot of young guys making the playoffs and teams that weren’t so good that are now making it into the playoffs,” Matthews said. “I think it’s awesome for the guys in this room, especially all the rookies. It’s something that we’ve yet to experience it at this level, so we’re looking forward to it.”
Even though he’s making his playoff debut, Matthews isn’t shying away from Toronto coach Mike Babcock’s assertion that the best players are judged by championships.
Gretzky has four.
“You’re kind of measured on that,” Matthews said. “I was fortunate to be coached by Claude Lemieux. He was always just an above-average player, I guess, in the regular season and then come playoff time he won a Conn Smythe, he won a couple Cups. He just elevated his level. That’s why he’s known as the player that he is today.”
And that represents the challenge for a Maple Leafs team that had seven rookies play at least 55 games this season.
“I think for all of us, everybody wants to up their game,” the 19-year-old Matthews said. “Everybody wants to be known as a guy that comes through in pressure situations.”
Gretzky was 23 when he won his first Cup in 1984.
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington contributed to this story.