TORONTO — As Todd McLellan continued to fiddle with Team North America line combinations on the eve of the World Cup of Hockey, he confirmed that Connor McDavid would open the tournament alongside fellow teen phenom Auston Matthews.
The Oilers head coach who is leading the squad of 23-and-under players from Canada and the U.S. said Friday that Matthews, this year’s top pick in the NHL draft, is a good fit for McDavid, the No. 1 pick in 2015.
“Watching Auston, he’s played with different players. He’s played on the left side, the middle even played on the right side a little. Every time he goes on the ice, he seems to be able to adapt to people around him and complement them,” said McLellan. “I don’t think he’ll have a problem with Connor at all.”
Hockey fans have been salivating at the idea of watching the two young stars playing together, a rare opportunity since McDavid is Canadian and Matthews is from the U.S.
North America opens play Sunday against Finland before facing Russia on Monday and Sweden on Wednesday, with all games at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.
The squad went 2-1-0 in exhibition play, defeating Europe 4-0 and 7-4 and losing 3-2 to the Czech Republic.
The squad, many of whom have played with or against each other in recent years at various international levels, has already impressed with its pace on the ice.
Finding somebody who can keep up with McDavid was part of the challenge for McLellan, who had Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele on the McDavid-Matthews line Friday.
“I think Auston has the ability to play the game fast, but also slow it down with his size, protect pucks and make plays,” said McLellan. “He’s been one of our most responsible forwards as well on the defensive side of the puck. I don’t have the problem giving him those minutes up front and playing him with Connor.”
Matthews, who will join Toronto Maple Leafs camp after the World Cup, said McDavid “thinks the game extremely fast.”
“He makes quick, fast decisions. Kind of like what [Patrice] Bergeron said about Sid: You kind of give him his space and let him do his thing. For us I think, myself, Scheifele, we’re two guys who can control the puck down low and with his speed and skill, two big bodies I think we can definitely control the puck and kind of put teams on their heels.”
McLellan also had Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau, Buffalo’s Jack Eichel and Detroit’s Dylan Larkin lining up together Friday while he put Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jonathan Drouin together with J.T. Miller, who was filling Nathan MacKinnon‘s spot because of a personal absence.
The coach said he’ll continue to tinker for as long as it takes.
“I think that’s going to continue for our team hopefully until Oct. 2,” he said. “We’re still trying to find groups.”