When the Erie Otters come into London to play the Knights Sunday afternoon, it will be all about what might be and what might have been.
What might be, of course, is the Otters’ Connor McDavid. What he might be is Canada’s top centre going into the 2014 World Junior Hockey Championship. I spoke to three NHL scouting directors this week. All three have had extensive viewings of McDavid last season and this fall. All three say that McDavid is significantly ahead of Sidney Crosby at the same stage. He would have to be if they’re on the mark about McDavid as a first-liner with the under-20 team. Bear in mind that Crosby, at age 16, played only a handful of shifts in any meaningful games at the WJHC.
“Of all the exceptional players (that the OHL granted early entry to play in the league at 15) he’s by far the most exceptional,” a Western Conference scouting director says. “I don’t care if John Tavares scored more points at 15 than McDavid did last season. McDavid is a far better two-way player than Tavares was. Maybe McDavid’s numbers at 16 won’t quite be there with Crosby’s at 16, but his upside is higher. Skating is what separates him (from Crosby). Crosby’s greatest asset is his strength on his skates. His balance makes him impossible to push off his skates. McDavid has that same strength but he’s even harder to push off the puck because he’s moving faster.”
“McDavid is having at least as big an impact in Erie as Crosby did in Rimouski, maybe bigger,” another scouting director says. “The support around them would be comparable but McDavid is doing it in a stronger, deeper league. And it wasn’t until Crosby’s draft year that Rimouski was really in the mix for a league championship. Right now Erie is right there with 10 straight (wins). No one wants to play them.”
I only bring this up because I took it in the neck on the internet from fans who think that Crosby could rightfully claim Bret Hart’s signature boast: “The best there is, the best there was, the best there ever will be.” When Sportsnet Magazine featured my story on McDavid on the cover, the headline was “Better than Crosby.” For a hockey writer making a claim that a prospect is the next 99, 66 or 87 is dangerous territory to tread. Not for fear of holding a kid to unreasonable expectations — I’ve never imagined that media attention has any significant impact on a player’s destiny. No, it’s simply dangerous because readers will push back. Most prominent among those pushing back are really only readers in a broader sense — no doubt they can read, but there’s nothing to suggest that they had read a single line of the story inside the cover.
I said in the story that by the most effective measure — their performances as under-age players in an international tournament — McDavid would have to have a lead on Crosby. That is, McDavid was better as the leading scorer and tournament MVP for the gold-medal winners at the world U18s as a double-underager than Crosby was as a first-line underager with Canada’s squad at the Ivan Hlinka, the inferior summer tournament. I bounced this off one of the scouting directors and his reply was immediate. “Everything you say is absolutely true,” he says.
Sunday will also be a good measure of McDavid’s place in the grand scheme of things. The Knights host Sudbury on Friday night and then have Saturday off, while the Otters are away to Niagara that night. That is, advantage to the hosts. How an elite player steps up in a game like this tells you what you need to know. After a slow start (due to an injury noted in the Sportsnet Magazine article), McDavid is on a roll with 23 points in that 10-game streak.
This test brings us circuitously back to London and what might have been. That is, what the Knights would be if they were able to pencil into their line-up two defencemen, former first-rounders, who are these days plying their trade in the NHL: Ollie Matta with Pittsburgh and Nikita Zadorov with Buffalo. While the NHL scouting directors said that they thought both players could benefit from another season in the OHL, they were more adamant about Zadorov.
“Buffalo is a train wreck and I have no idea what they’re doing,” one scouting director says. “Bringing four teenagers onto a team that must be an awful environment. You could just ruin them. Whatever the case you could make for the other players, Zadorov is the plainest one. I’m not even sure he would be on your top pair in the OHL if you’re talking about a team that wins a championship and takes a run at the Memorial Cup. I say all this and I liked Zadorov last year (his draft year). It’s not that he’s a long-term project but he needs the benefit of a couple of seasons here, maybe time in the AHL.”