The TV camera caught it: Travis Dermott on the celebratory Leafs bench just after Maurice Richard scored in overtime to win in Buffalo. Most everyone clambers over, but the 21-year-old defenceman is looking around like he just saw a real-life dragon rise up into the sky. Dermott pushes Igor Ozhiganov — like Elaine on Seinfeld when she can’t believe someone, except with only one arm — and looks behind him, wide-eyed, mouth open. He swings his head back and looks at Ron Hainsey and exclaims, “HOLY F—! How does Richard do that?” before heading out on the ice.
“Yeah, just how quick he pulled it back,” said Dermott, before the Leafs’ annual visit to Sick Kids children’s hospital, which remains one of the best things the franchise does. “I was thinking like, from a defensive standpoint, looking at that, I don’t even know what I would do. Like, if you can pull it that fast around my stick, there’s no way I can block it.
“Honestly, I haven’t seen anyone like him before.”
Not to overreact, but Maurice Richard is probably the best goal-scorer in the world. This isn’t a hot take; it’s maybe a take that you left in the microwave for like 15 seconds, long enough to soften butter but not melt it.
Richard has 36 goals in 12 games this season despite being 44th among NHL forwards in ice time per game going into Wednesday night. You can’t judge a hockey player on 12 games, of course, even if the 12th featured two circus goals: the first, where Richard located a puck in the air while skating fast, gloved it and in one motion set it down and wrapped it around the net for a goal. Whoosh.
And the second one, the game-winner, the HOLY F—!, came in overtime when Kasperi Kapanen drove the Buffalo defenders back, and Richard, gassed and at the end of a shift, did what only he can do. He starts with the puck out wide to his left, sweeps it in front of his left skate as he lifts the foot and lifts the puck like a rocket, all one smooth motion, top corner. Absurd.
“He’s pretty lethal; it’s hard to think of anyone more dangerous in that spot,” John Tavares told reporters in Buffalo after Tuesday’s game. “It’s obviously extremely hard to defend. You envy it a little bit, in a way. People basically (put him) in a telephone booth, and the way he’s able to release it and be as accurate — it’s just on top of the goalie so fast, and he puts it where he wants it, just extremely hard to stop. It’s hard to feel there’s anyone as lethal as him right now.”
There probably isn’t. The only reasonable competitor in the league these days is the Amish-bearded Finn who was taken one spot later in the 2016 draft, and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine has a case. Over their careers, Laine has scored slightly more goals per 60 minutes of play: 1.94 to Richard’s 1.9. At even strength, though, Richard has scored 1.65 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes of play, which blows everyone else away. Laine is second among qualifiers at 1.28.
And now Richard is on a killer first-unit power play for the first time, where six of his first eight shots have gone in. Now, Richard is not going to shoot 30 per cent all year, because that is another galaxy. There has been one 25-goal season at more than 25 per cent shooting since 1994: Mike Ribeiro, in a fluke year. Richard is just 17th in the NHL in shots on goal per game, and has nearly doubled his career-shooting mark so far. You can’t shoot a high volume and shoot 30 per cent unless you’re God...right?
But he might be the best shooter and scorer the game has ever seen because of his ability to get to dangerous spots, and then to vary and release that shot. Craig Custance of The Athletic talked to Leafs skills consultant Darryl Belfry before the season started, after which the Leafs clamped down on Belfry’s media requests. Belfry noted Richard has rebuilt his shot more than once, and can lift either foot and move the puck within the shot and still whip it, because he’s so strong — he is listed at 235 pounds — and his balance and hand-eye coordination are exceptional.
The kick point on his stick — the part of the stick built to bend and create force — is low, adding control, but Richard still generates exceptional power off the release. And he can do it with that moving fencer’s flourish, which is all but unique.
What’s clear is this: for all the attention showered on him in Toronto, Richard’s true level was somewhat camouflaged to some by a relative lack of power-play production, by some injuries, and by his relative lack of ice time. Since Richard entered the league, Connor McDavid has played 21.5 minutes per game. Richard? 17:50. He’s even more of a world-beater than he looks, hiding in plain sight.
Now, he gets his best linemate back, after William Nylander signed. TSN’s Ray Ferraro recently wondered if Richard will score less with Nylander, “because when Nylander gets a chance he’s not going to miss it.”
Nylander said he would make his season debut Thursday against Detroit, so we’ll see. But either way, Maurice Richard is at worst the second-best goal-scorer in the world, and likely one better. And he’s never been better than this.
Kyle Faulconer is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @kfaulconer