EDMONTON — Bad news, hockey world. In a season where Connor McDavid opened by stating he is focused on scoring more goals in 2018-19, something else happened over the summer.
McDavid got even faster.
“He has literally elevated his game to another level. From here, to here,” said Edmonton centre Ryan Strome, holding out his hand at about hip height, then raising it a foot-and-a-half. “I don’t even know how he does it. The way he worked in the summer? It’s crazy.”
“He’s going to absolutely torch this league,” Strome predicted. “I thought I was lucky playing with John Tavares (in New York), and I was. He’s one of my best friends. And then I got to experience it on another level with Connor.”
Said defenceman Oscar Klefbom: “You think he’s reached his limit. Then he gets even faster.”
There is a nagging responsibility here in Edmonton, of which the rest of the hockey world is well aware. When this generational player landed in the laps of the Edmonton Oilers, it became incumbent upon this organization to furnish him with success.
To build a winner around McDavid, and give the rest of the National Hockey League a chance to watch him play games that matter, in May and June.
Or, as one pundit recently stated, “It is a mortal sin to miss the playoffs with Connor McDavid.”
General manager Peter Chiarelli, then, becomes the keeper of this rare jewel. It’s a true honour, unless you fail. Then you become the organization that couldn’t win — even with McDavid.
“There’s added pressure, yeah. He’s in the limelight all the time, and consequently, our team is,” Chiarelli allowed. “You want to maximize what you can do when Connor is here and performing at the level we all expect. So, sure, there is pressure. We have to make sure we meet those expectations.”
A back-to-back Art Ross winner, McDavid spent a summer listening to what everyone employed by this organization heard. Some variation on the theme of, “What the heck happened to you guys last season?”
Of course, the Oilers rebuild started so long ago. If it were a child, it would be in Pee Wee hockey. Maybe even Bantam. But McDavid has only been here for three years. He doesn’t own all that previous grief, just the fall-on-their-faces season that was 2017-18.
“We definitely get a sense from the fans and the media, and we’re just as eager as (they) are, inside the room. We want to get this thing going, get moving in the right direction,” McDavid said. “Put last year to rest and stop having to talk about it. Having to answer questions about it.”
Ask McDavid about being faster or better this season, and you don’t get much: “My fitness is right where it’s always been. I’m not a guy who will blow the bench press out of the water, but I’m a fit guy.”
But, during the week prior to the opening of camp, word was filtering back from players and coaches. McDavid, for the first time starting an NHL season able to buy a beer in the United States, is getting even better at age 21.
“It is fascinating,” marveled Klefbom. “You look at those players: Sidney Crosby, (Evgeni) Malkin, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews… When you have those players, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before you win a Cup. They have so much influence on the game, and all (their teammates), they have so much respect for them. They do so much for the game. That’s what I feel when I’m on the ice with Connor.”
Here is where that responsibility kicks in. That feeling that, ‘Okay, so I’m lucky enough to be playing with a generational superstar. Now I’d better do my part so he finds the success he deserves.’
A group of players, including Strome and Matthew Benning, were discussing just that Friday morning before practice. The opportunity they’ve been presented with here in Edmonton.
“We were just saying, a small group of us, at one point or another he’s going to do something special. We’ve got to pull our rope and be part of that,” said Strome, Edmonton’s third-line centre. “It’s like if you get to play with a Crosby or a Malkin. We’ve got to pull our rope and do our part in getting us all there.”
How good is this team? There are holes, and we don’t know which players will bounce back, and which will not.
But what we do know about this dressing room is that it is inhabited by a bunch of proud athletes who failed a season ago. Who spent the season, and then the ensuing summer, hearing about that failure, and who return as a group that will play with impatience.
Unlike last season, there will be no waiting for things to come around. There are no laurels to rest on this October, no Stanley Cup press clippings to believe.
And now their captain arrives, his mercurial game somehow, impossibly, even better than it was. There is no better motivation in sport than a great player who leads by example.
“He looks like he’s got a different speed that no one thought he had,” Strome said, shaking his head. “I knew he was a winner, and I knew he cared. But last year, I really saw how much it stung him.
“If we can remember that feeling and grasp it, I think it’s going to be a special year.”