Sidney Crosby sees himself in hockey’s newest prodigy, Erie rookie forward Connor McDavid, whose Otters will face Max Domi and the London Knights on Friday Night Hockey (Sportsnet ONE, 7 p.m. ET).
The locked out Pittsburgh Penguins superstar told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently that McDavid “looks like he’s got it all,” Crosby noted. “When I watched him play, he reminded me of myself.”
These types of glowing reviews are becoming commonplace for McDavid, the third player granted exceptional status by the Ontario Hockey League to play in the league at age 15. Otters assistant coach Peter Sidorkiewicz is blown away by his team’s young star as both a hockey player and as a mature teenager.
“The best thing about him is he’s a really nice kid,” Sidorkiewicz said. “He’s humble and it’s not all about him, it’s about the team. And he wants to have success and he wants everyone else to have success.”
The defending champion Knights are led by sophomore sensation Domi, the son of former Toronto Maple Leafs pugilist, Tie. Max shares his father’s passion for the sport but couldn’t play a more differing style as an offensive catalyst.
“Max is and will be a world-class player,” says Knights assistant coach Jeff Paul.
It didn’t take long for McDavid, a product of Newmarket, Ont., to prove his exceptional status wasn’t without merit. McDavid scored his first career goal in London in his team’s second game, an 8-2 loss on Sept. 21. Aside from his first game, McDavid picked up at least one point in each of his next nine games and leads all rookies with 12 points in 10 games.
“I think our players, they sit there and marvel at him sometimes,” Sidorkiewicz says. “All of a sudden, he’ll make a pass or make a play and it’s like, ‘wow, where did that come from?’ I’ve been seeing that since we had our mini-camp in May. He does some special things out there.”
Domi is shouldering more of the scoring load in London this season with some of the key graduations by the defending J. Ross Robertson Cup champions. He’s tied for fourth in league scoring with 15 points in eight games.
“He works hard in the off-season to prepare and along with that, he’s got tremendous character,” Paul said. “He’s really well-liked in our dressing room. He’s kind of really taken the bull by the horn and kind of led by example with his work ethic and at the end of the day, with that comes production and we’ve been very happy with what he’s providing.”
Drafted one spot behind Domi in the 2011 OHL draft was forward Bo Horvat, a prospect whose offensive game isn’t as well-rounded as his teammate’s but still brings an honest, hard working style.
“Bo has a pretty good mix of size, strength and abilities,” Paul says. “With his upside, the sky’s the limit. He’s very durable, he’s very good on faceoffs and he’s got an excellent pair of hands. Without question, the hockey world is really taking notice.”
McDavid has perhaps the perfect teammate in Stephen Harper, whose developing physical style adds some sandpaper to go with his offensive instincts. He may not drop the mitts often, but he did register a Gordie Howe hat trick against Brampton on Oct. 5.
“He’s been a physical presence and he can score,” Sidorkiewicz noted. “He’s brought up his physical game, has really elevated and I think that gives him a lot more room on the ice and he’s got ability and he’s got skill. When he gets around the net, he can do some damage and he’s got a great shot.”
The Otters have a keeper in Swedish goalie Oscar Dansk, the third player drafted from his position in the 2012 NHL Draft by Columbus. Dansk is providing the Otters with a calming and dependable presence this season.
“Whether you’re playing in mites or in our league or in the NHL, you need good goaltending,” said Sidorkiewicz, who added that Dansk is still adjusting to the North American style. “He gives our team confidence and you can sense it on the bench when he makes some big saves and all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘wow, great job Oscar.’ And they thrive off of that. Our momentum picks up and so does our confidence and intensity.”
Overage goalie Kevin Bailie has some big skates to fill in London after the graduation of Michael Houser, the OHL’s most outstanding player a year ago.
“He’s done everything we’ve asked,” Paul said. “He’s played really well understanding the fact you can’t replace a Michael Houser in this city after what they accomplished last year.”
Scott Harrington took over for Jarred Tinordi wearing the ‘C’ in London and could soon wear a letter for Canada’s world junior team this December.
“Scott’s record and his experience speaks for itself and there’s a reason he plays for a national team,” Paul said. “He’s a calming influence and brings loads of character.”
Olli Maatta also represented Finland in last year’s tournament while newcomer Nikita Zadorov could represent the host nation in Russia this holiday season.
Dansk is a likely candidate for Team Sweden. McDavid may be too young to earn consideration for Canada’s team this year, but defenceman Adam Pelech represented Canada several times, most recently in the Canada-Russia series this summer.
“I love him to death,” Sidorkiewicz beamed. “He’s a horse out there… As a defensive defenceman, I don’t think there’s anybody better in our league.”
The season may be young, but it’s never too early to look at the race for a playoff spot in the tough Western Conference. The Otters missed the playoffs a year ago and know if they’re going to get back this season they will need to boast a strong record against Midwest Division opponents.
“We have to find a way to get points every night,” Sidorkiewicz said.
The Knights sit a surprising third behind Owen Sound and Guelph in the Midwest Division standings.
“It is a results-based business,” Paul said. “Owen Sound is obviously playing very well and getting some really good goaltending, but that’s Owen Sound. We worry about the London Knights first.”
In the past 15 years, who would you consider being the biggest prospect at the age of 15?