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Duhatschek: Where have the generational hockey players gone?

Edomton Oiler Wayne Gretzky and teammate Mark Messier(L) celebrate after Messier's goal against the Calgary Flames April 21, 1988.

Pat Price/Reuters

In the anticipation of NHL prospects Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, where the race to the bottom of the standings might be as compelling as the one to the top, there is a distinction scouts make about how good they may potentially be.

At the highest end, scouts divide the player pool into three unique groupings. Merely talented players, the first category, are available at the top of the draft every year – think Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, first overall to the Edmonton Oilers in 2011. Franchise players, Category 2, are less common and thus more desirable. Think Jonathan Toews, third overall to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2006, a mainstay on their championship teams and a key contributor to Canada's gold-medal Olympic wins in 2010 and 2014.

Then, every once in a while, you get a chance to pluck from category No. 3, the generational player, and in those years, the scouting salivary glands are sometimes difficult to control. Drool is common.

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Sidney Crosby was a generational player. The early Eric Lindros, before the injuries came along, was a generational player. So were Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe if you delve further into the past. Generational players can transform a franchise. Generational players can take a team from truly bad to really good in short order.

Generational players are not just future Hall of Famers, but players who lead the discussion about the greatest of all time.

What's notable is the absence of generational players on Canadian teams this past quarter of a century. There have been lots of talented ones.

The Sedins, Daniel and Henrik, each won scoring titles playing for the Vancouver Canucks. Jarome Iginla twice won the Rocket Richard trophy with the Calgary Flames. José Theodore took home the Hart Trophy playing goal for the 2002 Montreal Canadiens.

But one can reasonably argue that the last generational player to play in Canada was likely Gretzky, who was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988; or if not Gretzky, then it was Mark Messier from the same Oilers dynasty team who lasted a little longer (1991) until he, too, moved on to play for the New York Rangers.

If a goalie can be said to be a generational player, then maybe Patrick Roy qualifies because he won a record three playoff MVP awards, two with Montreal, one with Colorado.

What sets a generational player apart from a talented or a franchise player is his impact on and off the ice. Generational players can become not just the face of a franchise, but the face of the league.

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The Roy-led Canadiens in 1993 were the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup, a good but not great NHL team spurred on to success by a single, galvanizing star.

The Los Angeles Kings have proved in recent years you don't necessarily need that one defining player to win a championship, but it sure helps in critical moments to have one to rally around.

Do McDavid and/or Eichel genuinely fit the bill as future generational players?

"To me, they do," answered Craig Button, the former NHL general manager and long-time hockey scout, now a commentator for TSN. "You watch Connor McDavid; he's electrifying. Remember when Guy Lafleur would jump over the boards and everybody in the building knew he was on the ice? Then he'd get the puck and it was like, 'Okay, here we go.' Well, that's McDavid. I use this distinction carefully, but McDavid is to Eichel what Gretzky and Messier were to one another. Eichel has the power game – he can impose himself on opponents with his size, whereas with McDavid, it's the way he skates and the way he thinks.

"When you compare these guys to players like Messier and Mario Lemieux, that's rarefied air – and to me, they're in rarefied air."

Because of McDavid's or Eichel's transformational potential, their presence in this year's draft has generated a debate about the merits of tanking the season – deliberately losing games – in order to enhance a team's odds of landing one or the other.

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The NHL indirectly addressed the possibility last year with tweaks to the draft lottery, to be phased in over a two-year period.

Whichever team finishes at the absolute bottom of the standings will see their odds slightly reduced to hang on to the No. 1 overall pick, but cannot drop below No. 2.

In two years, the lottery becomes even more of an equal opportunity mechanism, but for this year – and for these two players – finishing dead last guarantees you one of the two.

The pros and cons of tanking can be an interesting theoretical exercise, but for all practical purposes, it is a hard thing to execute.

Even if an organization deep down understood that this is a year when short-term pain could provide a lot of long-term gain, it is difficult to get 20 active players in the dressing room – all fighting for their NHL lives – to collectively throw in the towel. Anyone in the NHL or on the cusp of playing in the NHL is there because of an unflinching desire to compete and succeed. Even going with younger players is no guarantee of failure. Sometimes they learn and adapt faster than you think. Plus, if you're not trying to win every game, you lose the integrity so critical to the business of professional sports. It sends the wrong message to everyone working for you.

Still, with the NHL's first month in the books, the modest turnarounds in Calgary and Winnipeg have been met with mixed emotions by some from their respective fan bases, especially on the chat boards and radio talk shows – because they are moving further and further away from the chance to draft a generational player.

The Edmonton Oilers might be the one exception, depending upon how November evolves. With their leading scorer, Taylor Hall, out for up to a month and the closest competition at the bottom of the Western Conference standings, the Arizona Coyotes, playing improved hockey of late, the Oilers were as of Friday only a point ahead of the Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets, the three teams sharing last place in the overall standings.

It meant Friday's showdown between the Sabres and Oilers in Buffalo, normally a game that would be easy to ignore, could have serious implications on the race to the bottom.

Pittsburgh's ability to draft Lemieux and Crosby 21 years apart defined that franchise for two generations, proving that some years it's good to be bad.

Wouldn't it be something if, just for once, a player of McDavid's or Eichel's pedigree actually landed on a Canadian team and forged a long career north of the border – just to see what that might look like again?

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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