How Connor McDavid changed his game

McDavid is the sure-fire No. 1 pick come June. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

Everyone sees Connor McDavid coming.

Everyone in the stands at the 2014–15 home opener at Erie Insurance Arena sees McDavid coming. Five thousand of them edge up on their seats when the CHL’s top-ranked prospect comes over the boards. Likewise, NHL scouts in attendance zero in on the centre favoured to be the No. 1 pick in the draft next June.

On the ice, the Sarnia Sting see McDavid coming. All of them have to track him every second he’s out there. When he’s away from the puck, forwards rub shoulders and elbows into him, and defencemen keep him in their peripheral vision. When the Otters get McDavid the puck near or in the neutral zone, those same Sarnia forwards don’t try to tie him up and skate with him–that would be a fool’s errand. No, they give him a big cushion. Not that it helps—he still blows by them. Likewise, the Sting defencemen are backing off and giving ground. Others they’d try to stand up at the blueline, but it’s all they can do to stay upright and somehow between McDavid and the Sarnia net.

The Sting see him coming and, like teams across the Ontario Hockey League, there’s nothing much they can do about it. Maybe this night Sarnia would hold on to the faint hope that because it’s October, McDavid might not be in full stride just yet—even though he has three goals and eight points in Erie’s opening three games, all road wins.

Through the first 15 minutes or so of this game, the Sting might be encouraged, thinking that McDavid is something less than his highlight-reel self. He dekes his way to the edge of the crease but can’t get a rolling puck to sit down. Three times he winds through traffic, but only once gets a shot on net and it’s turned aside. But the fourth time’s a charm. McDavid weaving through defenders, turning goaltender Justin Fazio inside out and notching the 57th goal of his junior career. Still, at the end of the first period, the Sting lead 3–1. Maybe they presume that his game will come together, just not tonight.

Everyone has always seen Connor McDavid coming. When he was “playing up” and dominating leagues in minor hockey. When Hockey Canada granted him exceptional player status and allowed him to enter the OHL at age 15. When Erie drafted him first overall. When he was a point-a-game scorer on an Otters team that finished 21 games under .500.

OK, even those who had the highest expectations of him didn’t envision his breakthrough performance at the 2013 world under-18 tournament—a double underager leading the Canadian team to a gold medal. And even after that, only a few might have predicted him scoring at a rate of almost two points a game last season and leading the Otters to the Western Conference final, where they lost to Guelph, the eventual Memorial Cup finalist.

Connor McDavid wants every fan, opponent and scout to know that he’s coming this season, bigger and better and harder than ever. “I have a lot more experience than I had going into my first two seasons in Erie,” he says. “I’m a more complete player. I’m certainly stronger.”

When you first saw McDavid at 15 or 16, he looked boyish, tall enough at a bit over six feet, but not physically mature. When he started working out, he needed assistance just to do a set of chin-ups. This summer, he worked his way up to a set of 10 with a 25-lb. plate hanging from his belt. His lower-body work saw comparable gains. “The strength translates into more speed, a better first step and explosion, and more stability on my skates,” he says.

McDavid believes his strength isn’t just the stuff found in the weight room. “I’m a mentally tougher person than I was a year ago,” he says. “I had a few tough experiences that have helped me focus on what matters and tune out the other stuff.”

Foremost among those experiences was the fallout from the Canadian team’s flat-line fourth-place finish at the world juniors in Sweden in January. Though the coaching staff asked McDavid to play a bigger role than Sidney Crosby at 17, he was scapegoated for the medal-less performance. The nadir was reached on Twitter with an account called @BlameMcDavid that was subsequently suspended. “There are going to be some ups and downs wherever you play, but some things said about me weren’t so good,” he says. “You have to let it go, you can’t get down about it.”

Brian McDavid, Connor’s father, said his son was able to move past the cheap shots. “He came to understand that there’s stress that goes with all the attention [of being the projected No. 1 draft pick],” Brian says. “Connor also accepted the idea that if you’re going to have a problem, it’s a good one to have. In the second half of the season, he took his game to another level.”

Early in this season, it looks like McDavid is taking his game to another level again. It’s the same level of skill, of course. Against the Sting on opening night, he crashes the net on his first shift in the third period and scores what would stand as the winning goal. On his next two shifts he picks up assists on power-play goals off the stick of Alex DeBrincat. Nothing new there.

What is new, though, is McDavid’s amped-up feistiness, something attached to the “C” that was sewn on his sweater in the days before the home opener. Sting defenceman Anthony DeAngelo, a feisty piece of work himself, has been testing the shaft of his stick on McDavid throughout the proceedings. In the third period, DeAngelo finally gets whistled for it, but not before a scrum forms and not-so-niceties are exchanged. McDavid follows DeAngelo and chirps him on his glide to the box.

Last season it would have been one of the veterans taking umbrage with DeAngelo for crimes against the boy wonder. Now it’s McDavid fending for himself and for others. “It’s a different team this year and my role is going to be different,” he says. “We had a lot of 19-year-olds and a lot of leadership last season. This year we’re one of the younger teams in the league. I’m going to be expected to fill some of that [leadership role].”

At the end of the night, McDavid skates out onto the ice, the game’s first star. When he gets back to the dressing room he learns that his teammates have also “honoured” him. He was named their “Super Player of the Game.” It’s a more humbling than head-swelling award, given that the Otter designated as the Super Player must wear a gawd-awful two-piece suit, something in a comic-book motif replete with BANG over the breast pocket, POW on the right shoulder and BLAMMO on a matching tie that falls two inches short of reaching the wearer’s navel. Assistant coach Jay McKee picked it out at a Halloween costume store at a local mall. A suit of lights would be less conspicuous. Nonetheless, McDavid dons it smiling, knowing that he’s bound to be wearing it again and again, and exits the arena. Lots of nights this season everyone will see McDavid coming, and going.