NHL

Oilers star Connor McDavid leads the NHL’s latest Golden Era of young talent

Oilers star Connor McDavid leads the NHL’s latest Golden Era of young talent

Final score in Buffalo: Knights 7, Sabres 4. Eichel finished 3-1—4. And Bruce Cassidy’s Whole in the Desert Gang improved to a league-best 13-2-0. A fairly nice piece of work there for a couple of former Massachusetts hockey guys.

As superb as Eichel may be, no one in today’s NHL, or in league history, executes at McDavid’s blinding speed. McDavid is the crown jewel of an abundance of young (late teens to mid-20s) talent, superb, highly skilled players across the league who form an embarrassment of riches in what is now a truly unique NHL era.

Remember the PGA’s “These Guys Are Good” ad campaign? It ran for more than 20 years, beginning in 1997, and was an exceptional marketing strategy comprised of TV spots that highlighted the sublime talents of the world’s best golfers, many of them, in fact, not named Tiger Woods.

The PGA veered away from its engaging, informative “These Guys Are Good” approach in 2018, and now, considering the ongoing battle with the LIV Golf enterprise, obviously has bigger issues than how best to sell its brand. Or maybe not? Perhaps that’s something for the PGA to consider before it fades like a sliced drive into “The Tour Once Known as the PGA.”

The NHL comes close to that old PGA approach with a fairly effective new campaign, “The Next Golden Era is Now.” It ties in a bit of yesteryear’s heroes, including Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, and Gordie Howe, and uses the balance of the 30-second spot to highlight sensational plays by some of today’s stellar talents, such as Auston Matthews, Cale Makar, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Trevor Zegras, and of course McDavid.

The key message highlighted: “Will you let the golden era pass you by?”

Translation: “Seize the day, people, because these are the kids who are defining the era that one day you’ll be reminiscing about like those old goats who gas up RVs every summer to visit that spot in the Canadian Rockies that has the visages of Orr, Gretzky, Howe, and Jean Beliveau chiseled into the mountain.

The next step for the NHL to take, like the PGA did, is to focus more acutely on specific kids, showcasing their speed, athleticism, and execution. No sport in the world has athletes, even those lower on the talent chain, executing at today’s NHL’s pace and dealing with its degree of difficulty and, let’s not forget, danger.

These guys are so good that it’s hard to appreciate fully until the video is slowed, allowing the degree of difficulty and athleticism to be highlighted and, to some degree, explained. At today’s pace, it can be difficult for even an experienced eye to detect how a play develops, never mind how it gets executed or finished.

Some of these kids are magnificent artists, conditioned and hewed and as exacting as Olympic gymnasts, but it’s often lost on the audience and TV camera because the action gets blurred at such high speed. John Davidson, the ex-Rangers goalie back in Columbus as the Blue Jackets’ president of hockey operations, was a fine color analyst in one of his prior lives. He had a knack for spotting a great play from the booth and declaring, “Oh, baby!” in real time.

Those “Oh, baby!” moments today are routine in their frequency, and far too often underappreciated or outright missed by the audience, including fans, media, and league broadcast executives.

It’s a treat to watch Connor McDavid play fast, and he’s far from the only young talent in the NHL.Jason Behnken/Associated Press

As for McDavid, no matter how ramped up his miles per hour, the Oilers center’s skill set never breaks down, his game a brand of magic akin to what the world first saw with Orr’s arrival on Causeway Street in 1966.

McDavid, though, is faster, and operates every shift in a high-speed league light years ahead of, and more demanding than, that pre-dial-up era of Orr and his fellow greats as the league transitioned from its leather-and-wood Original Six days. Legions of dyed-in-woolen-socks fans of the Black and Gold hate to hear that because there was only one Orr. Agreed. No argument here.

But likewise, there is only one McDavid, a fact that would be more embraced, or at least more widely acknowledged, if he worked in, say, Toronto or Montreal, or in any one of a dozen big US markets.

Cable and satellite TV, along with the NHL’s Center Ice package, have made for a more connected hockey world and a larger viewing audience. Yet time and place still matter. Edmonton is out there, and other than the game clock inside Rogers Place, it runs on Mountain Time.

It was really only Gretzky who transcended those realities, albeit his Q factor aided immensely by his shift from Edmonton to Los Angeles in his prime at age 27. Just as there never will be another Gretzky, it’s a solid bet there won’t be another McDavid, and it’s equally true he is surrounded with a load of great, eye-catching talent in today’s era.

The Canucks’ Quinn Hughes, at 23 one of the leauge’s up-and-coming stars, will visit TD Garden on Sunday night.Minas Panagiotakis/Getty

One of those dazzling kids, 23-year-old defenseman Quinn Hughes, will be in Boston Sunday night with the Canucks facing the Bruins. Virtually every roster across the Original 32 has one or two of these primo young talents. The Bruins have David Pastrnak, 26, drafted the year before McDavid and Eichel, and franchise defenseman Charlie McAvoy, who’ll turn 25 next month.

Oh, and there’s more coming. The next phenom up should be Connor Bedard, a 17-year-old center with WHL Regina, who is the object of a few teams’ tanking dreams ahead of June 2023.

That strategy, as Buffalo so rudely discovered, doesn’t always work. The Sabres had the right guy in mind, and ended up with a talent now poised to soar with another team — in an era the likes of which we’ve never seen.

Oh, babies!

DIFFICULT LOSS

Milbury remembers teammate McNab

Former Bruins forward Peter McNab celebrated a goal in the 1982 Stanley Cup playoffs.STF/Associated Press

Peter McNab’s death last Sunday, at the age of 70, was somewhat lost in the brief-but-dizzying Mitchell Miller kerfuffle, the latter one of the sadder chapters in Bruins history.

McNab, for his lengthy tour of duty in a Bruins uniform, was decidedly one of its happier chapters. Ever-gregarious and consistently productive, “Maxy” was a kind, congenial presence — front and center in the Lunchpail A.C. era, during which he often centered a line flanked by John Wensink and Terry O’Reilly.

Born in British Columbia, McNab was a standout at the University of Denver after playing youth hockey around San Diego. He came to Denver on a split scholarship, for baseball and hockey. Drafted by Buffalo, he ultimately joined the Bruins via trade in 1976 — a swap that sent Andre Savard to the Sabres — and came aboard just as fellow collegian Mike Milbury (Colgate) cracked Don Cherry’s lineup full time.

US college players were still a rarity, if not objects of ridicule, in the late ’70s NHL, a league that was transitioning from its status of nearly an all-Canadian men’s club.

“Yeah, or as Grapes called us, ‘My two college pukes,’ ” Milbury recalled the other day, reminiscing over the loss of his longtime friend. “Might not be a better description of Peter than Grapes calling him, ‘My golden retriever on a team of pit bulls.’ ”

Milbury said he was in frequent contact with his old buddy after McNab was diagnosed with cancer more than a year ago. They would swap medical woes, noted Milbury, and then lapse into stories of the Lunchpail era “glory years,” including the legendary matchups with the Canadiens and, of course, the Dec. 23, 1979, climb into the Madison Square Garden stands to take on Blueshirt fans in “Slap Shot”-like fashion.

“A total team guy,” recalled Milbury. “He was up highest [in the stands] during the Madison Square Garden brawl — and that’s why I went up there. We were buddies, our stuff adjacent one another in the locker room for all those years. I had no idea what was going on when I ran up there, but I went up because it was Peter.”

A fan had reached over the short panes of glass atop the sideboards and plucked the stick from Stan Jonathan’s hands. O’Reilly was first over the boards, and McNab, his trusty centerman, instinctively followed. Milbury, of course, became the event’s headliner, repeatedly smacking a fan in the thigh with a shoe lost in the brouhaha.

“How much did you pay for your ticket?” Milbury asked his chosen piñata as he cobbled his leg. “Hope you enjoyed the show!”

One story Milbury and McNab liked to share over the years came from the Cherry era, with then-general manager Harry Sinden, disappointed over the club’s play, rounding up his charges for a tongue lashing.

“Grapes didn’t want it to happen, but oh well,” recalled Milbury. “And it was in Denver, of all places.”

Mike Milbury (left) and Peter McNab had plenty of laughs while reminiscing on their years playing for Don Cherry (right). John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The meeting with Sinden long ago forever was remembered as “The One Iota Story” between McNab and Milbury.

“Harry went around the room,” said Milbury, noting how Sinden called out each player, bluntly detailing flaws in their game. “So he comes to Peter, and it’s, ‘And you, McNab … your checking hasn’t improved one iota!’ ”

The memory, 40-plus years later, had Milbury laughing like it happened last night.

“Half the team didn’t know what an iota was!” he said.

Denver, where McNab starred in college, was also where he lived and worked these last 25-plus years as lead analyst during Avalanche broadcasts. Including his first years with SportsChannel working Devils games, he spent some 35 years in the media, adding to the lengthy bona fides that led to his induction in the US Hockey Hall of Fame.

McNab left the Bruins during the 1983-84 season, swapped by Sinden to the Canucks for right winger Jim Nill. The memorable headline: “Bruins Get Nill for McNab” still gets a giggle out of Bruins fans of the day.

A consistent point-a-game producer across his 7½ seasons in Boston, McNab finished his career with 363 goals and 813 points in 955 games. He had a personality as rich as his résumé. He was a kind, gentle soul.

”He played with such joy,” noted Milbury. “His celebrations were true moments of happiness for him. His wife [Diana] told me how he used to go to local hospitals, visiting kids with cancer and other problems, some of the kids severely disfigured. She told me he went every week and others might have shied away, but he kept going. He wanted to do it. He gave a lot to a lot of people in the latter half of his life.”

ETC.

Bruins have been real homebodies

Charlie McAvoy and the Bruins have been cooking at home so far this season. Rich Gagnon/Getty

The Bruins made it eight straight wins at home Thursday night with their 3-1 trimming of Calgary. Small comfort for the Flames, but their goal by Noah Hanifin held for a 1-0 lead for a total 13:55 until Connor Clifton struck late in the first period. That’s the longest lead an opponent has held this season at the Garden.

In the prior seven games on Causeway Street, only the Wild, with a lead that lasted all of 77 seconds on Oct. 22, managed the upper hand on the Bruins.

Through eight games at the Garden prior to taking on the Canucks Sunday night, the Bruins amassed a lopsided lead time advantage of 273:13 to 15:12 — approximately an 18:1 ratio, by far the largest of the 26 teams to have played more than five home games as of Friday.

The only three clubs in that group remotely in the discussion for home-ice advantage time were Winnipeg (5:1), Vegas (3:1), and Carolina (2:1).

On the downside, the Wild were the worst, trailing opponents by a 5:1 margin at the Xcel Energy Center, followed by Columbus (3:1) and Buffalo (3:1).

The only club truly in the discussion with the Bruins is the Panthers, who had played only five home games as of Friday, holding nearly a 73:1 advantage: 200:40 vs. 2:44. The Panthers also were the lone other club yet to suffer a regulation loss on home ice (4-0-1).

Loose pucks

It was a reminder of the perils of hockey when Evander Kane’s wrist was sliced by a skate blade.Jason Behnken/Associated Press

Yet another reminder of the perils at play in hockey: the severe laceration Tuesday to Evander Kane’s left wrist, the Oilers winger bleeding profusely as he dashed to the dressing room during a game in Tampa. Banged near the sidewall, Kane was on the ice, his wrist exposed, when it was sliced open by one of ex-Oiler Pat Maroon’s skate blades. Patched up, Kane, in year No. 1 of a four-year $20.5 million deal, is expected to miss at least 3-4 months. The timeline may be optimistic. The good news: The outcome could have been considerably worse … No telling what the selling price will be for the Senators, but the two daughters of late owner Eugene Melnyk have them on the block provided the new owner promises to keep them in Ottawa. The Kraken drew a $650 million expansion fee and the Penguins reportedly cost Fenway Sports Group upward of $900 million — the league’s most recent franchise sale … New coach John Tortorella has the Flyers off to a strong start, 7-4-2 into the weekend, all the more impressive considering the Broad Streeters have been without top center Sean Couturier (back surgery) and the highly productive Cam Atkinson (upper-body injury). Both are expected to remain hors de combat when the Flyers visit the Bruins on Thursday … The Blackhawks, in Boston Saturday night, lost top defenseman Seth Jones to a thumb injury at the end of October. In part, that’s meant longer time for ex-Bruins blue liner Jarred Tinordi, who signed prior to last year with the Rangers and then came to the Blackhawks as an Oct. 10 waiver claim. Patrick Kane, who will turn 34 on game day, again is leading the Blackhawks’ scoring chart with fellow icon Jonathan Toews (each with 10 points in the first 13 games). Betting remains that they’ll both be wheeled at the trade deadline … The Canucks have recovered somewhat from their season-opening 0-5-2 freefall. “A lot of mental lapses by us,” said captain Bo Horvat. J.T. Miller, who delivered that crushing blow to David Backes in the 2019 playoffs, when Miller was with Tampa Bay, has remained a steady hand in Vancouver’s turnaround and entered weekend play with 13 points in 14 games. The object of trade rumors last summer, he stayed put for a seven-year, $56 million extension that kicks in after this season. Canucks president Jim Rutherford to The Athletic’s Pierre Lebrun: “Moving out top players is not the way to do it” when clubs are trying to rebound.


Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at [email protected].



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