BUFFALO, N.Y. — Connor McDavid tries not read what’s written about him, following the advice of agent Bobby Orr and so many people around him. But it’s hard after Buffalo Sabres games.
“Whenever the Sabres lose, my Twitter just kind of blows up with fans kind of talking about me and stuff like that,” McDavid said.
It goes beyond social media. Some fans have already had “McDavid 97” Sabres jerseys made up and wear them to games that he’s not even eligible to play in.
Buffalo is tied for the fewest points in the NHL through six games and has been outshot 227-141. With the team in full rebuild mode and no expectation for success this season, some fans are on board with the idea of tanking for the No. 1 pick in June’s draft.
Even with a draft lottery system in place that discourages tanking, former Sabres defenceman and current Erie Otters assistant Jay McKee understands why those looking at the long-term picture are willing to cheer for losing to get an opportunity to pick McDavid.
“They should want to get Connor McDavid, the fans here in Buffalo,” McKee said. “But obviously in order to have a chance at drafting Connor, they’re probably going to have to have a bad year again. And as a fan, as a player, that’s not necessarily what you want, so it’s kind of a double-edged sword.”
On Wednesday night, McDavid had a goal and three assists in his first game at First Niagara Center, which could be his home rink in less than a year. In something of a novelty regular-season
Ontario Hockey League game, McDavid and the Otters were in town to play the Niagara IceDogs.
It’s the second time Buffalo has been the stage for top 2015 draft picks. This arena also hosted the USA Hockey prospects game, and potential Nos. 2 and 3 picks Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin, in September.
For Erie, the game is a nice bit of exposure, and coach Kris Knoblauch said it’s a chance to break up the monotony of the season. For McDavid, it’s a potential preview of his future.
On the concourse, McDavid Otters shirts and jerseys are mixed in with Sabres gear. The colours are similar, and the connection is undeniable.
Collin Kuznik of Buffalo proudly wore his customized McDavid Sabres jersey to the Otters-IceDogs game on Wednesday night. He said fellow Sabres fans praise him when he wears it to NHL games, too.
“I just got the Sabres McDavid jersey because I figured the Sabres’ shot at him is pretty high this year,” Kuznik said. “(Fans) cheer for the Sabres but after every loss they go, ‘At least we can get McDavid.'”
Standing at a lectern Tuesday afternoon with a Sabres logo on it, McDavid said it was pretty weird to think about fans in Buffalo already getting his name stitched on jerseys. The 17-year-old, who’s considered “The Next One” after Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby, insisted he’s not thinking much about the possibility that this is the first of many times he’ll step onto the ice here.
“Maybe a little bit,” McDavid said. “If Buffalo happens to be the one that drafts me, that’ll be great and I’ll be thrilled. It’s the NHL. You kind of go where you’re picked. Every NHL city and organization is first-class. Buffalo would be obviously a tremendous honour.”
McKee played a season with Crosby and has drawn parallels between the Pittsburgh Penguins’ captain and Erie’s younger playmaking centre with the indescribable vision. On Tuesday, he said McDavid has the potential to be among the greatest players to play the game.
With those expectations, it’s no wonder Sabres fans have their focus on McDavid instead of the likes of Cody Hodgson, Chris Stewart and off-season additions like Matt Moulson, Josh Gorges and Brian Gionta.
“Do you want to win? Do you want to have a draft pick? If you want to get a chance to get Connor McDavid, you’re going to have to finish real low in the standings,” McKee said. “I understand the fans and their desire and for having Connor – they should have that desire. It’s just a tough situation. You don’t want your home team to lose, but you do want a good draft pick.”
Over the past three drafts, the Sabres have had five picks within the top 20: centre Sam Reinhart second overall this year, defencemen Rasmus Ristolainen eighth and Nikita Zadorov 16th in 2013 and forwards Mikhail Grigorenko 12th and Zemgus Girgensons 14th in 2012.
Those players so far have combined for 37 points in 171 games, and Girgensons has 24 of them in 76 games.
“You build up all those first-round draft picks that are 10th or lower in selection and you’ve got a pretty good recipe of building a Stanley Cup team in the future, in four or five years or so,” McKee said.
No one’s giving up on those young and still-developing players, but adding McDavid to the mix would change the whole landscape. Even though he believes he’s no lock to make Canada’s world junior team this year, the Newmarket, Ont., native leads the OHL in scoring with 32 points through 11 games.
McKee called McDavid a “generational player.”
“Draft picks from 1 to 10, usually the players will have a great shot or great speed or work their tail off, there’s something to high draft picks that are special about all those players,” McKee said. “He has all those abilities in one person.”
While Eichel, a centre playing for Boston University is in the discussion, it would be hard to imagine an NHL team with the first pick passing on McDavid. To no one’s surprise the Otters are some of McDavid’s biggest supporters.
“I’ve had a lot of players with a lot of ability that I wish had more character, and I’ve had a lot of players with a lot of character I wish had more ability,” Erie general manager Sherry Bassin said. “Put them both together, you get a star, and we’ve got a few of them and he’s our leader.”
Having seen McDavid’s development up close, McKee considers his play “amazing.” And he’s not surprised that fans of many NHL teams want him.
“It’s pretty unique because you don’t find players of his capability very often,” McKee said. “It’s not every year in the draft that you can find a guy like that, and I think this year is a special year.”