TORONTO – Connor McDavid uses the word
He’s the captain of the Edmonton Oilers, who finished 18 points out of a playoff berth in 2017-18, a year in which some critics leapt from pegging that team as Stanley Cup favourites to writing them off before all the Halloween candy had been gobbled up.
He’s the captain of the most recent edition of Team Canada, the one that floundered in the medal round and finished fourth at the world championship in May, the first national squad in four years to not leave with something shiny around their necks.
Individually, only a fool would blame McDavid — the most outstanding hockey player on the planet two years running, as voted by his peers — for these failures, even partially.
He won his second consecutive NHL scoring race in 2018, with a personal best 41 goals and 108 points. He piled up 17 points in 10 games for his homeland at the worlds. Earlier this week, the NHL Network anointed him the best centre in the game (again). A defiant “Crosby’s better!” debate never arrived.
He’s the best right now. Present tense.
And yet, hockey is the ultimate team sport. One man cannot LeBron his way through June — even if that man is faster, smoother, more talented and more determined than anyone he shares a sheet with. McDavid didn’t win the league MVP only because his supporting cast, taken as a whole, was lousy. He needs help, and judging by the Oilers limited off-season movement, it must arise from within.
So when McDavid, a month away from his fourth NHL training camp, muses about his potential wingers — Ty Rattie? Kailer Yamamoto? Bueller? — he says
“It’s funny that we talk about it, and it’s been three years now,” McDavid said Tuesday after an intense, 90-minute skills workout at Toronto’s Power Edge Pro camp. “I was able to find a little chemistry with Nuge [centre-turned right winger Ryan Nugent-Hopkins] and Ty Rattie at the end of the year, so you hope to come into that. Or maybe someone new. You hope to come into training camp and stay with someone and try to build your game with someone.”
A self-described homebody, McDavid has been skating regularly for weeks now. He feels refreshed and looks driven after bouncing around Europe (Paris, London, Amsterdam) with girlfriend Lauren Kyle and friends for a while. “Which was awesome — to get away from everyone and everything. Spend some time with friends,” he says.
Weaving through the increasingly popular skill-handling obstacles at PEP, which force players to up their hand speed and sharpen their edge work, McDavid starts off every drill, and none of the pros who follow — Connor Brown, Dylan Larkin, Boone Jenner, Alex DeBrincat among them — are as swift or nimble. McDavid’s reaction time is so mesmerizing up close, Larkin, the last NHLer to hold the crown of Faster Skater pre-McDavid, doesn’t dare suggest he could take him.
“Connor, for sure,” Larkin concedes. “He’s fast. Quick hands. The way he skates, you can tell he’s been doing this training for a while now, and it clearly pays off for him.”
McDavid, as ever, is trying to improve every aspect of his game. Despite his year-over-year goal total jumping from 30 to 41, his reputation is that of passer and playmaker first, so he’s again pouring summer hours into his shot.
“It’s hard to work on the other things,” he admits. “You can talk about how you want to work on your defence, but how are you going to do that in the summer unless you’re scrimmaging?”
So he continues to zip and spin through the patented on-ice equipment and makes expert players look like pylons.
At one point, Jack Hughes — the 17-year-old projected to go No. 1 overall in the 2019 draft — accepts a perfect lead pass from McDavid’s tape and you wonder if the two have a relationship.
“We’re friendly with each other, I guess. He’s been really nice to me. I’m not expecting to be friends with him or anything. As long as he’s nice to me, that’s all I’m asking for,” Hughes explains. No phenom-to-phenom draft-year secrets have been revealed.
“It’s kinda just been him chirping me about going to the OHL,” says Hughes, who will return to the U.S. National Team Development Program. “He’s a nice guy.”
McDavid has trained with Hughes a couple times last summer and this one. Any advice McDavid passes to Jack, he reasons, wouldn’t matter.
“You look at all the kids who have come in and done their thing — there’s so many different examples he can relate to — it’s not going to be an issue. He’s so good that he’s probably just waiting to get to the draft,” says McDavid.
He launches into a scouting report that could fit either of them: “Such a good skater. He’s very agile. He just looks smooth with the puck. He’s obviously going to be a very good player.”
Quinn Hughes, Jack’s older brother and the shiniest addition to the Canucks’ prospect pool, believes not only is McDavid hands-down the best at running the drills, he sets a tone.
“Especially Jack watches him and sees how good he is and takes things from what he sees out here and tries to apply it. Seeing all these pros, being around these guys is really good for the both of us,” Quinn explains.
“Nowadays, guys are so serious and skilled about it. No one can really take breaks. I mean, you watch the best player in the world and he’s out here too, so…”
So… how ’bout them Oilers?
Purse-strung on July 1 by the giant contracts given to McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and critical lightning rod Milan Lucic in recent summers, McDavid says the consistent message from GM Peter Chiarelli to players and fans was that a big move would only be made if it presented itself.
“But nothing too promising came up. That’s good. You want to keep the group together. We were a good team two years ago,” says McDavid of the group that elevated all expectations when they drew within one win of the conference final. “The team we were last year wasn’t up to our standards, and it’s important we get back to our level.”
It’s suggested that the Oilers showed pride by finishing 2017-18 stronger than they started.
“There’s just got to be a point in time where you get sick of losing, and you just don’t anymore. Guys came together. Guys were sick of how the year was going and came back to playing hockey the way it should be, the way you need to,” McDavid says.
“It’s a good learning experience, but one you never want to go through again. We talked about it so much now that it doesn’t really need to be talked about again.”
Chiarelli did make two smart, low-risk free-agency bets on depth forwards Tobias Rieder and Kyle Brodziak, to whom McDavid has fired off a few text messages.
“Very excited to bring both those guys on. Reider with his speed and offensive flair, he’s going to get chances in our lineup. He’s a guy that can complement the number of centremen that we have,” the captain says.
“Then you look at a guy like Broadziak, who’s been in the league so long, who does everything right. I’ve heard he’s an excellent guy in the room, and that’s definitely something we could use.”
One more thing the Oilers could use before McDavid flies from Toronto to Edmonton in about a month’s time is a new contract for Darnell Nurse. The unsigned RFA led all Oilers defencemen in scoring last season and should take another step in his progression.
“He’s definitely a guy that’s a key piece to our puzzle,” McDavid says. “He’s going to need to be there. I’m not sure the extent of what they’re talking about, but he definitely needs to be there.”