Friday, October 23, 2015

Connor McDavid -- the next once-in-a-lifetime player

By Larry Wigge

The comparisons were one-in-a-lifetime performers.

Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby -- players who turned franchises around. But ...

Everyone claimed 18-year-old Connor McDavid was that generational players. More than just the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He can be an adequate skater, but if you have great vision and smarts you can be an elite hockey player.

But can he leap tall buildings in a single bound ...

"He's strong, but it’s different when you're playing against NHL players," warned Edmonton Oilers G.M. Peter Chiarelli. "There are going to be battles he loses, he's not Superman."

The 6-1, 190-pound center from Richmond Hill, Ontario, made history for putting up points in bushels. He scored 44 goals and 76 assists for the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League last season in just 47 games. McDavid also led Canada to a gold medal at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship.

"He's the best player to come into the NHL in the last 30 years, the best to come along since Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby," Gretzky said. "When a guy can almost average three points a game in junior hockey in this day and age, that's telling you this guy's a pretty good hockey player ... he's a phenom. He can definitely change a franchise's fortunes."

Florida Panthers G.M. Dale Tallon, who had once been selected No. 2 overall in 1970 by Vancouver reasoned: "You're in a fishbowl in the Canadian markets. Expectations are higher -- there is less room for error.

"The Oilers have been down a long time. This kid is going to be their savior. Now, that's pressure. He is going to be under the microscope. But I think Connor can handle it."

The leap to the NHL was not without a few hiccups ... he scored one point (a goal in his third game), before he totaled two goals and an assist in a 5-2 victory against the Calgary. Then, came a little of the consistency.

The Oilers haven't made it to the playoffs since 2005-06. Like Tallon said, Edmonton has been down for a long time.

Heck, Edmonton's pick in the NHL draft had been No. 1 overall four times since 2010. In 2010, the Oilers selected Taylor Hall, in 2011, they picked Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2012 (Nail Yakupov), before reaching out for McDavid.

With McDavid in the lineup, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov had different roles on the Oilers.

Things had to look up.

After McDavid's three point night against the Flames, he added an assist in a 2-1 win over Vancouver and tallied the game-winning goals against Detroit. Astonishingly, the woebegone Oilers had a three-game winning streak.

"We'd be crazy to not want the offense to go through Connor," volunteered coach Todd McLellan. "We want the puck in his hands. He probably understands now that our players want that, they want him to succeed. They're not trying to suppress him or put him back into his rookie position."

Bobby Orr happens to be McDavid's client.

"He's not Sidney Crosby. Sidney Crosby is Sidney Crosby," said Orr. "Connor McDavid is Connor McDavid. Give him time to put his own stamp on the game, whatever it is.

"He's so smart. Watch how he gets up on his skates. How he sees the ice, how he passes the puck, how he shoots it. He just loves to play. As long as he keeps that passion and never loses it, as long as he is able to play at his level. Our job is to talk to him, keep his feet on the ground."

Unlike Crosby, who learned to shoot in his youth by firing pucks into a dryer in the basement, McDavid banged shots off the garage wall and mastered stickhandling by navigating through elaborate obstacle courses that his dad set up in the driveway.

Through thousands of repetitions, he acquired his ability to dangle and deke and dupe defensemen with a dip of a shoulder.

From the time Connor was young, Brian McDavid, doting dad and youth hockey coach, told his wife their youngest son was a whirlwind well beyond his years. Kelly would nod -- and then suggest to her husband that he was a tad touched.

"He kept saying, 'He’s special,' " she remembers. "I would say, 'Oh, for goodness sakes. Every kid thinks they are going to play in the NHL. Get that thought out of your head.' "

Mom had her share of stories, too.

At three years old, Connor McDavid would don rollerblades and slap pucks at nets placed at either end, often guarded by his mother or grandmother.

"I would be in the kitchen and he would yell up to me, 'Mom, I just scored the winning goal in the Stanley Cup finals!' " Kelly says. "I would yell back, 'That's very nice, honey.' "

When McDavid was 6, the hockey association in his hometown of Newmarket would not let him play above his age group. Instead of having him play in the lower level, McDavid's parents enrolled him with a team in nearby Aurora, where he played against players as old as 9.

At 15, Connor was just 5-7, 160 pounds. He's 6-1, 190 now.

McDavid compares his skills with someone other than the other greats. He'll watch a Philadelphia Flyers game and say he admires captain Claude Giroux for his 200-foot game and offensive ability.

"He's so reliable in his own zone," McDavid gushes. "He can be put out there in the last two minutes of a game -- to either score a goal or to defend the goal."

Great vision and smarts on the ice and off of it.

"You just have to say 'Screw it,' to losing and get that mentality that we can win games here," said McDavid, who says he can feel the Oilers getting stronger ever night. "That change of mindset is a big difference. You're not hoping to win, you're expecting to win.

"There's a big difference when you're heading into games thinking the other way."

"There's a big difference when you're heading into games thinking the other way."

"He's got all the tools to take over a game," says teammate Hall. "It's not pressure, it's fun pressure and I think he really seemed to enjoy it and we need more of that. It was a lot of fun to watch."

The antipation ...

Take it from a veteran coach like St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock, whose Blues blanked McDavid at the Scottrade Center and in Edmonton so far this season.

"I'd say Mike Modano would be a really good comparison for Connor," said Hitchcock, who coached the center in Dallas where they won a Stanley Cup in 1999.

"Mike knew when to turn and burn."

Hitchcock then chimed in with ...

"With both Mike and Joe Nieuwendyk ... that was their strength, their anticipation.
That's the same with Connor. You think you are going to score, and next thing is you're looking at a 2-on-1 or a breakaway against.

"Dangerous. There's lots of guys who can skate, but he's dangerous. If you don't manage the puck well in all those 50-50 puck battles, he's gone."

So the Oilers finally have something special, something other than their seven consecutive season without a playoff berth.

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