He’s been around NHL hockey as a player and an executive 40-plus years, and these days he’ll log upwards of 110 games a season as a pro scout, mostly in the Western Conference. On this mid-November Saturday night, he’s in Glendale, Ariz., to see the Coyotes host Edmonton. It’s the third time he’ll see the Oilers live this month, the fifth time this season.
The pro scout will file reports like he usually does. His would be the industry standard. He’ll list lines and note scratches. He’ll log evaluations of players—some for coaches to put into play, some for reference if his GM were to consider a trade for anyone out there. Data analytics is ascendant, but organizations value the eyeball test.
There’s nothing much he can file about Connor McDavid that will come as breaking news to his team or any other, or in fact anyone at all with a casual interest in the game. In his second year in the league, after an injury-abbreviated rookie season, McDavid’s leading the NHL in scoring and running away with the race for highlight-reel moments. “A lot of the game is confidence,” the pro scout says. “As good as this kid was last year, as confident as he was, he’s taken it to another level this year. He knows he can do things the other guys can’t even imagine he’ll do. He’s got confidence you just don’t see every day or even every season.”
Arriving in Arizona, the Oilers are playing perhaps their best hockey since–well, their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006 comes to mind. A 5–0 win over Chicago on Nov. 21 stood as a high-water mark and a wake-up call to any team that would face Edmonton: the young team might not have figured out how to put it together every night, but on nights when they do, even the league’s perennial powerhouses risk being routed.
The pro scout admits that the phenom presents a challenge to the gatherers of intel. “Sometimes you can get caught up watching him and wondering how the hell he does what he does,” the scout says. “He does things that I’ve just never seen before—like Gretz or Mario or Orr. You can lose sight of the other guys out there or what you can do to stop him—if there’s anything.”
In other sports, teams have devised strategies to shut down dominant performers. In baseball, St. Louis manager Lou Boudreau put in an extreme infield shift when Ted Williams came to bat for the Red Sox in the 1946 World Series, a move that was founded not on percentages so much as a belief that it would distract the “Splendid Splinter.”
On occasion, it’s the league itself that steps in. In hoops, coaches found that double- and triple-teaming Wilt Chamberlain couldn’t hold him under 50 points, so the NBA brass stepped in and widened the lane.
NHL coaches have come up with their own game plans designed to combat legends. When Philadelphia met Boston in the 1974 Stanley Cup Final, Flyers coach Fred Shero did the unexpected to get Bobby Orr off his game: Instead of instructing his players to keep the puck away from Orr, Shero had his players dump and chase the puck to Orr’s side of the ice, forcing him to retrieve it and giving Philly’s forecheckers a chance to lean on him. They tried to wear him down and did, beating the Bruins in six games.
Then there’s shadowing: designating a checker to stay close enough to breathe on the opponent’s star. The template was set back in ’66, when Detroit played Bobby Hull and the Chicago Black Hawks in the playoffs. Red Wings coach Sid Abel moved young defenceman Bryan “Bugsy” Watson up to the right wing to line up opposite Hull with this memorable instruction: “If Hull goes to the concession stand, you go with him and put the sugar in his coffee.” Watson thoroughly grounded the “Golden Jet” and spawned imitators: Edmonton’s Esa Tikkanen ruined many nights for all-stars, most memorably his former linemate Wayne Gretzky. Likewise, Buffalo’s Mike Peca haunted Eric Lindros with the Flyers.
These days, coaches look less to shadows and more to pitting a top blueline pair against opponents’ star talents. And that’s what teams around the league are trying to do with McDavid. So far, that matching is barely slowing the phenom.
Anyone who watches McDavid can identify his greatest asset, the talent that makes him impossible to defend: speed. Yet the scout working the Edmonton game in Phoenix says that this is only the answer in part. “Some other great players have had a change of speed that can get separation,” the scout says. “I played against Mark Messier, and he could be going faster than 95 percent of the guys in the league and then, just when a defenceman had made what he thought was an adjustment, Mess would kick it up into another gear and could beat [the defenceman] wide and get around him. McDavid can do that, sure, but he does something else that I haven’t seen before.”
The scout says that McDavid’s change of pace is different than others’ he’s played against and studied: “McDavid can come almost to a complete stop and then get back up to top speed in a blink. I saw him do it against Drew Doughty in L.A. He was coming down the left wing and Doughty was giving ground, giving what looked like a safe cushion in a one-on-one. McDavid slowed to a crawl, and Doughty had to, too. And then McDavid explodes—a first step in the middle of a rush—and Doughty’s scrambling for dear life. Nobody does that to an NHLer, and McDavid is doing it to a guy who’s the best in the league, or right there close to it.”
The challenge, then, is finding a way to deny McDavid the chance to gather speed coming out of his own end of the ice. And thus you have to look for a team that had some success at this previously.
Back in the spring of 2015, McDavid’s junior career ended with a shutdown job by the Oshawa Generals in the Ontario Hockey League final. McDavid had come into the series on a high, picking up five points in the clinching win over the heavily favoured Soo Greyhounds in the Western Conference Final. It looked like he could carry the Erie Otters to the Memorial Cup, but the Generals went into the showdown with a plan and executed almost flawlessly.
First, in a variation of the “Bugsy” Watson shadow ruse, the Generals had a matchup they were going to work at every chance. “Oshawa had Cole Cassels—a very solid two-way centre, very good without the puck—out there every chance they could against Connor,” Erie coach Kris Knoblauch says. Two years older than McDavid, Cassels, the son of former NHLer Andrew Cassels and a draft pick of the New Jersey Devils, could beat McDavid on faceoffs and wielded a heavy stick.
The Generals’ strategy went deeper than that, however. “Really, [shutting down McDavid] wasn’t just my assignment,” said Cassels after the game. “All five players on the ice and everyone on the team knew how important it was.”
Two of those five players were the Generals’ top defensive pairing, Josh Brown and Dakota Mermis, the game’s first and third stars, who were a cumulative plus-6 when they beat the Otters 6–2 in game five to clinch the OHL title. McDavid, a minus-3 for the night, was looking at a clogged neutral zone and a stacked blueline. Oshawa also iced an older and larger team than Erie, with some of the league’s most fearsome hitters up front. The Otters blueliners retrieving the puck struggled to make clean breakout passes and catch McDavid in flight.
The matchup could have gone sideways for Oshawa—success hinged on team discipline. The Generals put Erie on the power play only twice before the dying minutes, when the contest was effectively long over. Said Cassels: “We knew we had to keep [the Otters] off the power play as much as possible. We’re a physical team but we managed to stay out of the box.” Five-on-four play would have given Erie puck possession to gain the neutral zone and McDavid the necessary space to gather speed.
McDavid did have his chances, and the Otters managed 32 shots compared to 27 for the Generals. Oshawa’s ultimate antidote to the phenom was goaltender Ken Appleby, an undrafted, overager who was nobody’s idea of an NHL prospect. To beat McDavid, it helps if you have a goalie playing the game of his life.
Knoblauch thought that one rule, since adjusted, played a critical role in Oshawa’s shutdown on McDavid. “They changed the icing rule later [to the NHL model], but in that series, Oshawa was able to change lines after icings,” Knoblauch says. “The matchups would have looked a lot different [with the rule] as it stands now.”
The shutdown job that stands out early this season came on Nov. 1, the date that many—McDavid surely included—had circled on the schedule: Edmonton’s first trip to Toronto with the wunderkind in the lineup. It was an even more highly anticipated game than Sidney Crosby’s first at the ACC, the added value being the fact McDavid grew up in Newmarket, out in Toronto’s exurbs. The Oilers went to Toronto with a 7-1-1 record to start the season. The game was advertised as a showdown between McDavid and the first pick from the 2016 draft, Auston Matthews, but that matchup didn’t materialize. Instead, Toronto coach Mike Babcock assigned Nazem Kadri the task of shadowing McDavid from the opening faceoff. If Babcock’s move came as a surprise, it probably shouldn’t have. Because they’re still works in progress without the puck and in their own end, the rookie Matthews or 20-year-old William Nylander would have been bad matchups. While many have criticized Kadri’s play over the years, he is, when on his game, a nasty guy to play against, more physical than you’d assume.
The Leafs wound up with a 3–2 win in overtime and, more tellingly, McDavid was held pointless and finished minus-2. You had a sense it wasn’t going to be McDavid’s night barely 15 seconds into the game when Kadri jolted and dropped him beside the Toronto net. A minute later, Kadri opened the scoring. Hostilities escalated and frustrations mounted over the course of the night, with Milan Lucic trying and failing to intimidate Kadri and his teammates who took liberties, many effective, none particularly egregious. Kadri laid out the terms of his assignment: “[We had to] try to get in his way, be physical and be hard on him. If you’re anything but hard on him, he’s going to make plays and he’s going to embarrass you and do as he wants.”
Clearly, Kadri was a disruptive agent, but perhaps no more so than Edmonton coach Todd McLellan, who tried double-shifting McDavid to get his star away from Kadri. McDavid played just under 23 minutes, including more than eight minutes in the first period. Not to say that McDavid tired over the course of the game, but it seemed like he never got into a rhythm. And the final shift in overtime summed up the preceding 60 minutes: Kadri winning a draw, maybe getting away with a hold and beating McDavid down the ice for the winning goal.
The pro scout was surprised the Leafs were able to knock McDavid off his game and draw him into scrums: “That would be an exception. From what I’ve seen of him, he doesn’t get frustrated or angry about stuff out there. I’ve seen him walk away from face washes and chirping. For a young player who has to take a lot of crap, he’s a pretty cool customer. I don’t think he talks to the refs as much as Crosby did at the same age, or Gretz.”
What gets lost in conversations about McDavid is that he’s still 19 and hasn’t played what would be a full season’s worth of games. However spectacular he might be right now, even if he were to win the Rocket Richard Trophy, the Art Ross or the Hart, he remains a developing player. “I wonder about how his game is going to evolve,” the scout says. “He’s brave, even borderline reckless. He goes to the tough places on the ice, which is fine, [which is] what you want. But at high speed, he’ll expose himself to a cheap shot or something that will get him in trouble. That’s what happened in Philly when [defencemen Brandon Manning and Michael Del Zotto] took him out and he ended up injured. [McDavid missed three months with a broken clavicle.] I think it might be a lesson for him about picking his spots. Maybe he had to get hurt to understand that, and he was lucky it wasn’t a worse injury.”
After watching McDavid in the game in Glendale—a 3–2 shootout loss, with the young Edmonton captain scoring the opening goal in the second minute—the scout says he has one suggestion for the Oilers’ opponents. He cautioned that it’s not an airtight system, just a defensive principle. “Your best bet [when McDavid is in transition with the puck or on the rush] is getting some pressure from behind on him, like that play with Doughty that I mentioned,” the scout says. “When he pulls up and there’s no pressure from a forward coming back, he can go wide or cut to the middle. With some pressure from the back, you can influence his next move—maybe not taking away the choice completely but making one lateral direction look more inviting than another. But that’s a lot easier to say than do—getting pressure from behind on likely the fastest player in the league, one of the three or four fastest I’ve ever seen. If he pulls up, he gives you a chance to pull up.”
Maybe something as simple as the aforementioned pressure from back-checkers, something like trapping a ballhandler in basketball, will slow McDavid down. The scout, though, admits it’s just a suggestion, not the answer. “They’re the best players in the world, so they’ll make adjustments. They’re seeing it all for the first time. They’ll figure some things out. But then McDavid’s going to make adjustments, too–it’s not like he’s a one-trick pony.”
That was made emphatically clear at the end of November when the Maple Leafs travelled to Edmonton for their season’s second and final matchup against McDavid and the Oilers. Toronto left with a 4–2 win, a more comfortable night’s work than the score might indicate, given that the visitors took a three-goal lead into the third. Nonetheless, McDavid had a far bigger impact on the proceedings than he did against the Leafs earlier in the month. Babcock again tried to roll Kadri out against McDavid and got the desired matchup most of the night. But McDavid picked up two points, and his goal in the third period was again the stuff of NHL defencemen’s nightmares. After Kadri turned the puck over in the neutral zone, Lucic found McDavid in full flight on the right side of the ice. With no back-checker in his rear-view mirror, McDavid blew by Toronto’s best blueliner, Morgan Rielly, and deked Frederik Andersen for his 11th goal and league-leading 31st point of the season. Over a six-game stretch, he had rung up six goals and six assists.
That said, it’s hard to say what constitutes a streak or just business as McDavid’s usual: In his first 70 NHL games, he racked up at least three points on 10 occasions. Said the scout: “You can come up with ways you want to play McDavid, but you can only hope to slow him down, not stop him. You watch him, and after a couple of shifts some nights, you’re thinking, ‘He’s going to score every time he touches the puck.'”
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