Connor McDavid‘s lips were pursed, his answers as clipped as his wings.
The wunderkind is too polite, too professional to tell us how he really felt Tuesday night after his Edmonton Oilers lost in Toronto. But you could tell he wanted his media obligation to end as quick as the 12-second overtime that cherry-topped the greatest one-game neutering of the Next One’s already-brilliant NHL career.
“Kadri made a good play. He’s a good player and he played me hard,” said McDavid, filtering his inner seething. “Good for him.”
Yes, good for Kadri, who — with help from linemates Leo Komarov (a kamikaze on blades) and Connor Brown (McDavid’s former OHL teammate) and speedy defenceman Morgan Rielly — detonated hockey’s most explosive player while scoring twice himself.
Leafs coach Mike Babcock gave Kadri his assignment, a hearkening back to the shadowing days of another Oilers superstar, well in advance so he could mentally prepare. The hits, sticks and post-whistle shoves arrived frequent and early in Period 1. Kadri could taste McDavid’s frustration.
“We had a couple of verbal altercations throughout the game—nothing that can be repeated,” Kadri told Andrew Walker on Sportsnet 590 The Fan Wednesday. “Eventually it’s going to come to a boiling point where you’re going to snap.”
So, could a one-night tour de force shutdown by a skilled, edgy third-line centre provide a blueprint for how to contain McDavid?
Buffalo’s Dan Bylsma, one of only three coaches to keep McDavid off the score sheet and win, says it all depends on personnel.
“I’d like to say you can shadow the guy, but we don’t have anybody who can skate that fast,” Bylsma told Hockey Central at Noon.
Bylsma implored two defenders to stay above McDavid at all times, in an effort to prevent him from accelerating. It worked.
Because McDavid likes to lead the rush from the top of the defensive circle and carry the play all the way to the enemy’s crease, opposing teams have now started trying to stuff him early, in his own zone, before he jostles into fourth gear. What’s easier: slashing the tires of race car 10 feet from the start line or 10 feet from the finish line?
Try to nip him at the top of the circle, and McDavid will start his curl even lower, at the bottom of his own circle. Slower defenceman believe it’s critical that defending forwards angle McDavid along the wall ASAP. If he gets any momentum down the gut, he’ll blow by the Brooks Orpiks and Martin Marincins of the world like they’re waiting for the wrong bus.
Babcock’s strategy, however, was more psychological, and wholly dependent on home ice and the advantage of having the last change — sicking Kadri on McDavid every shift.
“You have to play with pace [and] not give him as much time and space as he would like,” said Kadri. “He’s a guy that can embarrass you if you’re not ready.”
Oilers coach Todd McLellan countered by double-shifting McDavid to the tune of 22:46, his third-busiest NHL game to date.
“We’re on the road, and they get the match they want, so it makes it harder for the opposition to figure out what’s going on, [and it] keeps our bench on our toes and engaged, because you never know who’s going,” Oilers coach Todd McLellan explains.
“He’s got great legs. Why not use them?”
Three times in his rookie year McDavid skated more than 22 minutes. That’s already happened five times this season, and with the Oilers still on the road, we expect to see more long nights for 97. McDavid ranked 47th in average ice time (18:53) last season; this year he’s sixth (21:29) with a bullet.
McLellan and McDavid each say the captain, used on both special teams, is capable of playing high minutes.
“As we play on the road and teams get the matches they want, we have to disrupt that,” McLellan says. “It’s early in the season. He’s fresh. He’s got a lot of energy, and we have the ability to use him in many different scenarios.”
We asked McDavid if he felt tired after the Toronto loss.
“No,” he asserted. “If you keep your shifts short, I feel like I’m in pretty good shape. I can do that. It is what it is.”
Babcock’s not convinced. The coach said post-game that Kadri was “fresher.”
“You jam a guy out there every shift and three in a row, stuff like that, hard to have the same pop,” said Babcock, a seemingly passive-aggressive swipe at McLellan’s deployment.
“I never expected the guy to play that much. He’s a good player and all that, but so is [Ryan] Nugent-Hopkins.”
Kadri says the relentless harassment approach is effective.
“It makes for a long night and takes a toll on the body for sure,” Kardi said. “Certainly 22 or 23 minutes for a forward is something that can be tough to sustain, especially for 82 games.”
We’re eager to watch McDavid’s minutes the rest of this nasty road trip, which picks up against the Rangers Thursday and later to a circle-the-date match in Pittsburgh Tuesday. (Does Alain Vigneault task Kevin Hayes with a Kadri-like challenge?)
It’s telling that McDavid’s reduced effectiveness on the road is following in steps of other elite forwards. Wayne Gretzky (1.74 to 1.39)*, Mario Lemieux (2.09 to 1.83)*, and Sidney Crosby (1.46 to 1.20) all saw a significant drop-off in production when opponents held last change.
We’re curious to see if others coaches in this copycat league crib from Babcock’s playbook. Do they have a guy, like Kadri, with first-line ambitions and third-line flexibility? More important: What about the West? Is a guy like Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler, arguably the game best shutdown man, fleet enough for the task?
McDavid is averaging 1.13 points per game at home and 1.04 on the road — a gap narrower than that of his hockey-god predecessors.
We bet that gap will widen as Operation: Corral Connor intensifies. Babcock and Kadri have given the league a handy starting point — and McDavid has been given a compelling new challenge.