KELOWNA, B.C. — They may as well have just stopped the game and told everyone to go home, that April 6 in Calgary when Connor McDavid tore up his knee on Mike Smith’s goal post. Even the Flames fans lost their edge, and remained a decidedly muted house through to the buzzer of that unfortunate, injurious season-ender.
“It just got quiet,” recalled Oilers defenceman Oscar Klefbom.
“It made you sick,” added Sam Gagner.
Fast forward nearly six months, and Gagner just shakes his head at how McDavid dominated two long, fast-paced Edmonton Oilers practices here in the B.C. interior.
“He’s scoring at ease in practice, which isn’t easy,” Gagner said. “He looks great … and just continues to get better every day as we go along in camp.”
The Oilers doctors and front office were to speak Monday afternoon about the possibility of McDavid playing as soon as Tuesday’s pre-season game against the Arizona Coyotes at Rogers Place. If not, he’ll get into one of Edmonton’s final two pre-season games, Thursday at Winnipeg or Saturday, ominously scheduled for back in Calgary. His torn PCL ligament seemingly 100 per cent healed, the decision on his return is expected to be made on Tuesday morning — and with two preseason games remaining after that one, it is clear that he’ll get at least one in.
Watching him in Kelowna, it seems inconceivable that McDavid would not be ready for the Oilers Oct. 2 season opener against the Vancouver Canucks.
This could have been much, much worse.
“Yeah. I guess that’s fair,” began McDavid. “There’s lots of uncertainty with injuries. There was lots of different stuff going on in the summer. To feel good on the ice is something I’m really happy about. The fact that we’re talking about games is something I’m real proud of. It’s been a long summer. Lots of hard work. Lots of good docs. Lots of smart people. I really appreciate all that they’ve done for me.”
McDavid busted up a drill on Sunday when he was the lone forechecker, chasing a puck that was shot in toward goalie Mikko Koskinen. He got on to Koskinen so fast, stealing a puck and firing it into the empty net vacated by the goalie, that head coach Dave Tippett ordered Koskinen to skate the width of the rink while all the players watched. It was a playful punishment for screwing up a drill, but an example of a moment that takes on a whole different timeline when McDavid’s speed is involved.
“I’m trying to push myself, too,” McDavid said. “Everyone’s played games by now — I’m the only one that hasn’t. I’ve gotta make sure I’m ready to go when the time comes.”
This Oilers team is no lock for a playoff spot, to be sure. They’ll need their goaltending tandem of Mike Smith and Koskinen to work out, new Swede Joel Persson to be able to handle top-four minutes, their re-worked bottom six to win faceoffs and kill penalties, and for a surprise player like Anton Burdasov or Joakim Nygard to give them some offence they were not necessarily counting on.
Even if all those coins land heads-up, however, it’s meaningless if McDavid isn’t able to be McDavid.
“There are some things that need to go right for us,” agreed Klefbom. “Anything can happen … but it’s nice to see (McDavid) on the ice and having that hunger he has right now. I asked him, and he said. ‘I want to play every single (preseason) game that’s left.’ So, the hunger is there, and he looks pretty good. Oh boy.”
Oh boy, indeed. McDavid ruled the ice at Prospera Place, home of the Kelowna Rockets, like a guy trying to show management he’s ready for game action.
“I think he’s just feeling more confident. Thinking he can jump into (anything) and not worry about his injury,” said Tippett. “He sets the pace out there, which is nice. It picks up the whole pace of practice.”
Tippett has seen McDavid from behind the opposing bench. The view is not quite the same as the daily looks he’s getting now.
“I remember the year I played with Mario (Lemieux) in Pittsburgh,” Tippett said. “Special players do special things, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a fan or a teammate, you still watch those things.
“Yeah, he’s a good player. A real good player.”