Slow start, steep NHL learning curve wearing on Connor McDavid
DALLAS — Finally, three games deep into his rookie season, it was Connor McDavid’s turn to pose for the picture every kid dreams of having taken. The one where he holds up a puck wrapped in white stick tape highlighted by three words: 1st NHL goal.
It’s a moment for personal pride, and for gratitude to all who helped him along the way.
No doubt McDavid was feeling those things deep down inside. But on the surface he looked like a 12-year-old who’s just been told that Christmas has been canceled.
“It’s something pretty special, something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” he mumbled unconvincingly in the wake of Edmonton’s 4–2 loss in Dallas. “Obviously it's not the way you want to end that game, but it’s pretty special to get it out of the way.
“I was excited, but a lot of it was relief, just with the pressure there is these days. It felt good.”
But that look suggested McDavid was feeling anything but good.
McDavid is a team-first guy, and he’s feeling the full effects of Edmonton’s 0-3 start to the season. And while no one is blaming him for the Oilers’ stumble out of the gate, it’s clear he has to be better than he’s been so far.
He had some recurring problems in Dallas, including another miserable night in the circle (he's now clicking at 24.2 percent on the draw). And there was that appalling backcheck on Jason Spezza's late-third period game winner.
Overall though, he was more effective against the Stars than he was in a listless performance against the Predators on Saturday. He was physical, driving Stars defenseman Johnny Oduya head first into the boards early on (a play that probably deserved a look from the league) and was effective along the boards. He’s finding chemistry with linemate Nail Yakupov. He also did a better job of finding lanes to the net and planting himself in the grill of the netminder. Ultimately that effort paid off, when he deflected a hard point blast off the stick of Andrej Sekera past Kari Lehtonen for his milestone goal.
But at the same time, that net-front presence isn’t what defines his game. McDavid is not a reactor. He’s a creator who demands that other react to him. At his best, he’s a bullet train, taking the puck high in his zone, quickly hitting top speed to back off defenders and then taking advantage of the space they afford him. There hasn’t been much of that in his first three games, though. Part of that is on Edmonton’s defense—there are too many plodders back there who struggle to move the puck in transition, and that leaves McDavid standing still too often.
It’s partly on him as well. He’s being overly cautious when it comes to leaving the zone, hesitating that extra moment to ensure that he doesn’t get caught going the wrong way on a turnover.
But more to the point, there’s a bit too much respect in his game right now. Not anywhere near enough selfishness.
To make the inevitable comparison, take a look at Jack Eichel in Buffalo. He clearly wants to be the man. He wants the puck. He wants to be the focus. The results have been immediate and spectacular.
McDavid though is a different cat. He seems determined to pay his dues, to defer to others until he feels he’s earned it.
That’s just who he is.
To be his best, to help the Oilers the most, he needs the puck. And it’s not enough to simply make himself available for it—something he’s not always doing right now on breakouts—but to demand it.
He needs to be the man.
It will happen in time. The trick for coach Todd McLellan and his staff will be guiding McDavid through this phase as quickly as possible.
It’s all part of the process as he transitions from junior sensation into NHL star.
The Numbers Game
• Scoring his first NHL goal in his third career game left Connor McDavid among some elite company that includes Sidney Crosby and Wayne Gretzky, who both needed a couple of outings before they lit the lamp.
• The Canadiens are only the third team in NHL history to start a season 4-0-0 with all four victories on the road. The others: 1965-66 Blackhawks and 2001-02 Islanders.
• Martin Jones of the Sharks is now the fastest goalie to post nine career shutouts since Frankie “Mr. Zero” Brimsek, who did in his 28th game for the Bruins, in 1938-39. Jones has needed 37 outings to hit the mark.
• It’s unfair to blame Boston’s 0-3 start on coach Claude Julien, but you know how these things work. Safe to say his seat is warming up.
• Elliotte Friedman says that both owners and agents hate the Mike Richards settlement agreement with the Kings. And both sides have plenty to worry about as a result.