It was never going to be up to Connor McDavid to lead Canada to the 2015 World Junior Championship.
That was never the plan.
The plan was for McDavid just to be part of it. Just enough for all the hockey world to see enough to know he’ll be the No. 1 pick in this summer’s NHL draft and let’s stop pretending this is a horserace of any kind, but not so much that this became “his” team in any way.
Not surprisingly, when the final taut, terrifying moments of Canada’s wild 5-4 triumph over Russia in the gold medal game on Monday night were winding down, McDavid was rarely seen on the ice.
Sam Reinhart sure was, his calm demeanour so important for a Canadian team that had frittered away a 5-1 lead. Frederik Gauthier took some important faceoffs, while Curtis Lazar, Max Domi and Anthony Duclair were out there skating like mad men, trying to hold the Russians at bay.
McDavid, who had scored a beautiful breakaway goal to give Canada a 3-1 lead in the second period, was, by that point, mostly watching.
Which was pretty much always the plan.
Yes, he wore an “A,” but the leaders of this team were Lazar and Reinhart, giving Canada a strong, experienced core. McDavid was the most purely talented player on Team Canada, and will almost certainly turn out to be the finest NHLer, but at this stage, particularly after suffering a broken hand early in the OHL season, winning demanded giving older teenagers the extra responsibility.
By comparison, look at the burden the Americans placed on Jack Eichel, to some a serious challenger to McDavid for the first overall selection in June.
The U.S. made Eichel the captain, gave him the important minutes, expected him to lead the way in his draft year. It didn’t happen. The Americans didn’t take a tumble because of Eichel, but it was asking far too much of him to fill the role Reinhart and Lazar were carrying for Canada.
McDavid, meanwhile, got to be a second liner, and in the end, he got to be a champion. This wasn’t quite the same as John Tavares making it abundantly clear at the 2009 world juniors that he should be the No. 1 pick in that year’s NHL draft ahead of Victor Hedman, but McDavid was put in a much better position to succeed as part of Team Canada, and did.
Both McDavid and Eichel, almost certainly, will be in the NHL next season, and while it would be perfect if, like Nathan MacKinnon and Seth Jones two years ago, they were to meet this summer in Quebec City for a Memorial Cup clash, that won’t happen. McDavid will start playing again for the Erie Otters for the first time since breaking his hand in a dumb November fight, and maybe run into Duclair and goalie Zach Fucale (Remparts) and Josh Morrisey and Madison Bowey (Kelowna) in May.
Eichel, despite wild pre-tourney speculation he would leave school and go to the CHL after the world juniors, is expected to return to Boston University and chase an NCAA title.
New Year’s Eve, then, was their one and only noteworthy pre-NHL collision, although both played in the world juniors in much less significant roles last year.
The world juniors, to savvy scouts, is just one measure of a draft eligible player’s season. Top prospects like Sweden’s Oliver Kylington didn’t play because of a last minute injury, while many others weren’t even picked by their countries to play in what is really a tourney for 18- and 19-year-olds. Players like Pavel Zacha and Mikko Rantanen were in North America for this competition, and NHL scouts got to look at their performances within the context of disappointing tournaments for their respective countries.
McDavid had plenty of those individual “wow” moments, albeit against weak competition like Denmark and Slovakia in a tournament that really lacked the overall quality of years past. We know about the glorious hands, but what we also saw was his pure speed and ability to be a slashing-type attacker at times. Players like Domi, Duclair and Reinhart produced in a series of mostly one-sided blowouts, allowing coach Benoit Groulx to resist any temptation he might have had to bump McDavid up higher in the lineup.
There was evidence of a 200-foot game from McDavid when he did play, and given that he hadn’t played for six weeks going into the competition, all in all the 2015 world juniors was a roaring success for him.
In 1998, Canada held a hockey summit that to a significant degree reoriented the country’s hockey philosophy to a more skill-based approach. Or at least stopped treating skill as less important than grit, size and muscle.
Born in 1997, McDavid is a product to some degree of that course correction, and joins a list of marvellously talented Canadian forwards that have dominated the first overall pick in the NHL draft for almost a decade.
That list includes Sidney Crosby (2005), Steven Stamkos (2008), Tavares (2009), Taylor Hall (2010), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and MacKinnon (2013). Stamkos, Tavares and McDavid all came out of Toronto-area minor hockey circles after a long period in which the largest city in Canada seemed to have stopped producing high end offensive players.
Including McDavid, that will be seven brilliant attackers in 11 drafts, and all are players built on speed, scoring talent and breathtaking creativity. It’s not impossible to imagine all seven will be part of Canada’s Olympic team in 2018 if the NHL sends its players to South Korea.
We can argue all day long about whether this is cyclical and compare it to what other countries are doing. But right now, the draft suggests if you’re looking for the most talented offensive player in the world each June, these days it tends to be a Canadian. It’s possible in June that two other Canadian forwards, Dylan Strome and Lawson Crouse, could join McDavid as top-five picks.
Canada won gold at the world juniors this year with a strong team that had almost no challengers en route to the gold medal game, and then saw its goaltending hold up just enough this time around.
It won’t be remembered as McDavid’s team any more than the Grand Forks team in 2005 was Crosby’s team. Yet both of those teams went unbeaten and untied.
There’s a lesson in that.