EDMONTON — There have been plenty of great players over the years, but what always separated them from the merely good ones was their ability to sense the moment. The intelligence to know when it was time for a truly superior performance, and the wherewithal to be the best player on the ice that night — that’s what set the Gretzkys, Messiers, Lemieuxs and Crosbys apart.
Connor McDavid is not there yet, OK? No one is saying that he is.
But, in his first scrimmage as an Edmonton Oiler, with about 7,300 people who came out on a beautiful July evening solely to see him play a 4-on-4 game for 40 minutes, then 3-on-3 for another seven minutes, all McDavid did was score five goals. His team won 8-6.
It was, as his GM would say later, a “a 3-on-3, 4-on-4 no-hitter.” But there was one player who had the puck on a string, one player who emphatically showed that he was head and shoulders the most dynamic, highly-skilled player among the 31 prospects.
The stage, however small, was his and he owned it.
“Everyone is going as hard as they can. You’re not trying to show anyone up … you go as hard as you possibly can,” he said. “It was awesome. I’m so excited to be a part of the week, see the city of Edmonton.”
The poor kid has been interviewed within an inch of his life here this week — and at the draft, and during the OHL playoffs. The quotes have run out. He needs a break.
He must just want to go home, throw his gear in the garage, and be an 18-year-old for a few weeks, no?
“I don’t need to take too many days off,” McDavid said. “There’s a short window between now and the start of the year. I’ll be trying to get as big and as strong as possible.”
We don’t claim to know McDavid real well yet, but his focus is clearly more fixed than any 18-year-old we’ve ever seen. It’s about hockey, and about being the best player.
If it’s a drill, he’ll master it. If it’s a goofy, no-hit prospects game, he’ll excel in it. There will undoubtedly be hurdles when he plays real NHL hockey against real NHL players, but if he doesn’t excel there it will be the first time in his life that the OHL’s Scholastic Player of the Year didn’t pass the test.
On his second shift Monday night at Rexall Place he turned Leon Draisaitl inside out, then executed one of the faster wrap-around goals ever seen inside this storied rink. Later he stole another puck from Draisaitl, and beat the goalie clean. One deflected in off a defenceman. Another time, during the 3-on-3, he hopped the boards to pick up a breakaway pass, then stickhandled the puck so many times within a four-foot window that the goalie — Brandon Wheat King Jordan Papirny — was left sliding the wrong way while McDavid buried the puck into an empty side.
Was it real hockey? No chance.
Was he the best player — the fastest skater with the quickest hands — by a country mile? Unquestionably.
“It was basically pond hockey,” said Draisaitl, whose game doesn’t suit this forum. “That’s why he’s special, why he’s one of the best players in the world. He’s a special guy, a special player. He deserves every credit he gets.”
“No matter what you do he’s going to make plays out there. Playing against him, playing with him, he’s a special player,” said defenceman Darnell Nurse, a World Junior teammate and OHL Final opponent. “[Five goals] is not a surprise. You know he’s capable of it. It’s not like you expect him to get [five] goals every time he steps on the ice, but you know he’s going to do something special.”
It’s time now to put the skates away for a few weeks, and stuff this laptop into a bag that won’t be opened for a while. The endless cycle of NHL hockey takes a rest now, but here in Edmonton, the anticipation of September camp is palpable.
It’s been a long, long road in this town — an experience only a Toronto Maple Leafs fan can relate to. Nine years missing the playoffs, a front office that couldn’t get out of its own way at times, and a coaching carousel that belied an organization that didn’t have a clue how to hire the right guy.
Those days are over now, and frankly, that would be enough for Oilers fans. Add McDavid to the formula, and you can say without hyperbole, this is the most exciting time in Oilers history since the early 1980s.
“Obviously there had to be changes, and they’ve made the right moves,” said Draisaitl. “Now it’s time to get to work, and get ready for training camp.”
No, rest first. Then training camp.