SAN JOSE, California – Connor McDavid had skillfully stick-handled through more than seven minutes of uneasy questions about the tenuous state of the Edmonton Oilers, the franchise luck gave him to save, when finally, mercifully, a reporter floated a softball about how fun he thinks 3-on-3 hockey is.
“Oh. My God,” he exhaled, half-smiling for the first time. “I was gonna get off the seat, it was so hot. I love the 3-on-3.”
McDavid’s first meeting with reporters since the man who drafted him but failed to surround him with enough working parts, Peter Chiarelli, was fired just happened to coincide with Thursday’s All-Star Media Day — typically a session made for lighter topics.
But these are dark, confusing, angry days in the city McDavid captains: another round of coaching and GM overhaul, enforced in a backwards order; another round of chatter about something rotting the water; another rebuild refusing to acknowledge itself as one; another season where the most awe-inspiring player in the game is on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
The Oilers are at risk of missing the playoffs in three out of four seasons with McDavid. A waste.
But maybe it’s lazy of us on the outside to paint the whole thing black when McDavid sees hope.
“What positives? We’re three points out of a playoff spot. I think that gets lost. I think that really is lost. We’re going through a lot of different changes but we’re three points out and have a chance to make the playoffs,” said McDavid, looking forward to a chance to make the haters eat their words after a much-needed bye-week.
“Things seem pretty down on us. There’s a sense of negativity within media, within everyone around the team. We get to prove people wrong. We get to decide how we’re going to finish the second half. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
He’s right. The West’s wild-card spots are wide open for the two subpar clubs who decide they actually want them down the stretch.
McDavid is encouraged by the impending return of a healthy Oscar Klefbom, noting that the one year he did make the post-season, Klefbom and Andrej Sekera were the Oilers’ best two defencemen and they’ve been out for the bulk of the past two losing seasons.
But Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson, who has spent much time speaking with McDavid over the past 24 hours, came clean that the issues with the 23-24-3 club go beyond a dearth of skill.
“We need to get the character straightened out,” Nicholson told Hockey Central at Noon Thursday. “We have to build a real positive environment here when the players get back.”
McDavid, riding for his friends like a good captain should, sees things differently.
“Character-wise, I think it’s easy to think we have turmoil in our locker room or we have this and that. We don’t have that at all. We’re a tight group. Guys love to play for each other. So it’s not that,” he asserted. “Losing isn’t fun. It’s not fun for anyone. I’m no different. You want to win. You want to build something special, something you’re proud to be a part of. We gotta still build that.
“You’ve got to believe. We have to believe that we’re going to turn it around.”
McDavid arrived in California with a fresh haircut, free of his flowing hockey hair (“It was getting a little bit shaggy and a little bit long,” he explained, “so it was a good time to get it cut”) but, as is too often the case, looking like he’d just made more room for the weight of the world on his shoulders.
He declined comment on Chiarelli’s firing, saying this weekend was for fun. That he and teammate Leon Draisaitl, whom the fans voted into the exhibition, have earned that right.
He wants to relax. Breathe.
“He deserves that. He needs that,” Nicholson said. “He’s fully on-board, he wants the team to get better. We just gotta take a little of the pressure off him. He’s the best player in the world.”
So even though McDavid couldn’t quite hide his annoyance for the line of questioning, he dutifully got through another long shift.
He described his relationship with new interim GM Keith Gretzky as “basic”: “I know him a little bit. I don’t know him a tremendous amount, but that’s [the case] with a lot of GMs.”
He touched on Wayne Gretzky’s involvement as a mentor: “Wayne’s around for sure once a month, every couple weeks. He’s obviously a busy guy. He does what he can to be around the team and offer advice where he sees fit.”
And he answered, briefly, some hard questions on how he feels about the incongruity between a sagging team and a soaring superstar.
Does Connor McDavid feel let down personally by what he’s been given to work with?
“I’m not going to comment too much on that at all. I’m just as much a part of this group as anyone, if not more,” McDavid said. “It’s on all of us as players. It’s on me being part of that. It’s on me being the captain.”
Has he reached a point, as some have speculated, where he no longer wants to be part of the losing? Maybe taste some other water?
“That’s just not the case at all,” McDavid said.
“I’m here to be part of the solution, and that’s all I’ll say on that.”