Wayne Gretzky says Connor McDavid is the best 19-year-old he's ever seen
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TORONTO — When watching Connor McDavid play for the Edmonton Oilers, Wayne Gretzky gets the urge to don his No. 99 again.
"I could get 60 goals playing with that guy," the Great One said. "I'm truly amazed at how good he is."
Admiration runs deep from the NHL's all-time leading scorer when it comes to McDavid. Gretzky believes his fellow prodigy has all the tools for a truly special career, mentioning his name in the same breath as Mario Lemieux, Gordie Howe, Guy Lafleur, and of course, Sidney Crosby, who he said remains the best in the game today.
"But I don't think there's any question that Connor's the best 19-year-old hockey player I've ever seen and I saw (Mark) Messier, I saw Lemieux, I saw Lafleur," Gretzky said Monday in an interview to promote his new book, "99: Stories of the Game."
"This kid is special."
Now, Gretzky continued, it's up to McDavid, who was recently named Oilers captain, to live up to the potential. Gretzky, a former Oilers captain himself, noted how Crosby delivered on the hype by winning not only individual awards, but Stanley Cups for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"The Lemieuxs, the Lafleurs, and the (Mike) Bossys, those guys did it, they accomplished it, they became Hall of Famers," Gretzky said.
"(Is McDavid) on the right track? Absolutely. And has he got an opportunity to do some real special things? One hundred per cent. Has he got his head screwed on properly? One hundred per cent. He's in the right organization (and) the city will take care of him. It's a wonderful city for him to play in. Tremendous ownership. Great coaching.
"Now, it's going to take time. He's still only 19," Gretzky continued. "But he has everything in place to become the best player in the National Hockey League and go on to win some championships for the Edmonton Oilers."
McDavid became the first Oiler since Gretzky in 1987 to record at least six points in the opening two games of a season, totalling three goals and three assists in a pair of wins over the Calgary Flames last week.
He had 48 points in 45 games as a rookie last season.
Gretzky said if he could steal one thing for his own game from McDavid it would be his speed. The Newmarket, Ont., native has "one extra gear that I don't think I've ever seen on a hockey player".
And though Paul Coffey, his former Oilers teammate and fellow Hall of Famer, is still the purest skater Gretzky has ever seen, McDavid is even on a "different level".
Gretzky believes McDavid's greatness and best-in-the-game status will ultimately come from Stanley Cups. Edmonton last won the NHL's biggest prize in 1990, two years after Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles. What separates great players from the truly elite, he said, is championships. All the legends, from Messier to Howe and Bobby Orr, have won the Cup at least once and in some cases, several times.
The foundation in Edmonton is there for McDavid to one day join them, Gretzky said.
Though he acknowledged the difficulty in evaluating individuals on team success, Gretzky said it was fair when it comes to the all-timers, a class he sees McDavid eventually joining. Does he think Cup victories should determine Hall of Fame status? No. Nor, he said, is one player responsible for delivering the game's top prize.
"But what I'm saying is if you want to get that elite status where they say you're Bobby Orr or you're Jean Beliveau to me you've got to win a Stanley Cup," Gretzky said. "Winning a Stanley Cup is important and you should never lose sight of that fact. And with winning that Stanley Cup he's going to win Art Rosses (for leading the league in scoring) and he's going to win the Hart Trophy (for league MVP). All that stuff will come with it because he's in a good organization with good coaching. He's got a management team that understands who he is and they're going to be a good team for a long time.
"Now, you've got to go to that next level. But listen, it's not going to happen overnight, it's hard to win, it's going to take time."
Gretzky envisions McDavid following the same path Crosby set a decade ago, which included a Hart Trophy as an NHL sophomore and Stanley Cup champion two years after that.
"Now, he's going to cross all those bridges that Sidney had to, whether it be playing for a Stanley Cup, whether it be captain of the Olympic team, all those things are going to come his way. But he's ready for it," Gretzky said.
"I just can't say enough good things about him I just think he's such a special player."
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had an incorrect spelling of 'Lafleur'.