EDMONTON — Connor McDavid has been raised under a spotlight, but at this stage of his life that glare becomes more of a grow lamp. He’s 20, but his maturity now approaches that of a 35-year-old. He’s seen and done things already that many will never see or do.
So, while most 20-year-olds are self-focused and less aware of the forces that surround us, McDavid is already well into his self-reflection years. Professionally, he finds flaws in his own game that few would ever see — that we never looked for when we were 20 — and he is already well on his way to improving them.
An example: while the hockey world gasped at the display of speed McDavid put on, scoring all three goals in Wednesday night’s 3-0 win over Calgary, not an hour after the game McDavid was already talking about scoring more goals but in a different fashion.
“I have no problem scoring on the rush but it’s (how to) find the dirty goals,” he mused post-game. “I don’t think I’ve scored on one tip, except for my first NHL goal. You look at (Joe) Pavelski and Sid (Crosby), who’s great at that. Those are ways to score too. I have to figure it out.”
What does this mean? It means that, to the peril of defenders across the National Hockey League, McDavid is growing up.
Through the lens of a hockey writer old enough to be his father, we’ve watched McDavid grow increasingly comfortable in his superstar skin, foisted upon him ever since he was 14 years old. Where he once gave the media a sound bite with little depth or zest — because that could be construed as him having an ego — today he speaks far more comfortably to the cameras.
Then, like Wayne Gretzky before him, he stays as the cameras move off and the writers move in for what becomes a more conversational forum. It is a time when writers can test theories or wonder aloud. Where trust is earned, and something misspoken can be said again in the manner intended. A place where the writers learn something about McDavid, he of us, and everyone walks away a little wiser about this hockey environment we all cohabitate.
“I’ve never been one of those goal scorers, that guy who goals come easy to,” McDavid admitted Thursday morning to a small group of writers. “ (He scores) more on the rush, more opportunistic. Whereas some guys, like (Auston) Matthews scores (Wednesday) night on a tip, and Sid scores on plays in front of the net. I’ve got to find ways to score like that.”
It’s truly the measure of professional character, when a player who is undoubtedly the fastest in the National Hockey League goes in search of ways to score goals that are not solely speed-based.
He watches San Jose’s Pavelski, envying his cerebral game: “He’s maybe not as fast as I am, but he’s just as successful. He scores with his mind, almost. He’s always in the right spot, creating little plays that might go unnoticed, but he’s very successful.”
And, of course, he studies Crosby, with Sid’s uncanny knack of being in the right place to score goals.
“If you’re flying through the slot, flying by the net, you’re taking yourself out of a chance to score. Arriving on time. The great goal scorers, they know how to do that,” McDavid said.
“You don’t want to slow down on the rush. It’s more in the zone, on plays like (his first goal Wednesday) night. A rebound, a shot off the pad, and you’re arriving on time. The person that comes to mind when I talk about that is Sid. He’s always in the right spot at the right time. The puck seems to sit there, but it’s not by accident. It’s not a coincidence.”
Comfortable dialogue like this was always there, we suspect. But McDavid wasn’t sure he could share it with non-teammates; that it wouldn’t somehow be construed as him saying he was as good as Pavelski, or could do the same things that Crosby does.
Today he is exactly where, they say, Gretzky was in his third NHL season. Growing comfortable with his impending role as hockey’s best player, even though neither would phrase it that way.
Ironically, it was 34 years ago to the day Wednesday that Gretzky was named Oilers captain, an occasion McDavid celebrated with a natural hat trick. It was Gretzky’s fifth NHL season, while McDavid was a sophomore when he was adorned with the ‘C.’
Something more congruent, however, might be what happened to their production in their third NHL seasons. That time when a player, as we see with McDavid this fall, begins to really get used to this life, and their place in it.
“There’s definitely just a sense of being more comfortable. Coming into camp, you know the system, you know the players. There isn’t any trying to fit in off the ice,” said McDavid.
Gretzky scored 51 and 55 goals in his first two seasons. In Season 3 he scored 92.
As a first-year player, Gretzky tied Marcel Dionne with 137 points, finishing second for the Art Ross because Dionne had 53 goals to Gretzky’s 51. The next season Gretzky won his first scoring title with 164 points, 29 better than second place Dionne.
In his third season Gretzky exploded for 92 goals and 212 points — 65 points ahead of second place Mike Bossy.
Last year McDavid was the NHL’s only 100-point player, while Crosby was next with 89. This is McDavid’s third NHL season, and with a hat trick in Game 1 and a new focus on scoring, who knows what he could accomplish?
“For me, last year was more passing, looking to dish off,” said McDavid, who has listened while Gretzky guides him to get a bit more selfish around the net. To shoot more often.
It’s something he’s heard his entire life, but McDavid admits, “It sounds different coming from him more than anyone else.
“You might listen.”