NEW YORK — Squaring off against the Rangers on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, the Edmonton Oilers needed an early spark.
Enter Connor McDavid, the Oilers wunderkind who has taken hockey by storm since his arrival.
Around the six-minute mark of the first period, McDavid leapt over the boards to take charge in the midst of a power play. In a matter of seconds, he’d done just that, eventually setting up shop deep in the offensive zone, his head on a swivel.
Moments later, winger Jordan Eberle looked for McDavid with a pass, the intended recipient camped right in front of the net. The puck wasn’t quite on target and ended up at McDavid’s feet. Most players in his situation would just hope it bounces fortuitously off a skate to a teammate. But McDavid isn’t most players. He made a split-second decision to kick the puck toward linemate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who fired it into the open net.
One thing was clear from the opening face off: there was McDavid, and then there was everyone else. Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, who was assigned to shadow No. 97, was pretty content that his opponent was limited to a single point, the aforementioned assist, in the Rangers’ 5-3 win.
“He’s a special player, no question,” Staal said. “He’s pretty dynamic out there for sure. When he gets it with speed, he’s extremely hard to defend.”
The last line of that defense was Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, and the Swedish puck-stopper didn’t mince words when asked what was going through his mind whenever the young virtuoso darted into the offensive zone.
“Be ready,” said Lundqvist. “He’s coming at you with so much speed, and he also makes the players around him really good with the way he opens up plays with his passing. He’s coming at you and he can make moves, he can shoot, so he’s always testing you. I felt like every time he was on the ice, you could see him out there, he was making a difference.”
McDavid will turn 20 on January 13, 2017. He’s already the captain of a storied franchise looking to return to glory, he’s being hailed as the next guardian of the NHL’s galaxy, and yet despite all of those expectations and the fast-paced chaos, he’s able to navigate the terrain ahead calmly, much like he does on the ice when he’s skating at full speed.
“I feel like a lot of it is just instinct,” he said. “You play the game long enough, you get a pretty good idea of what to expect out on the ice. A lot of it is just getting used to the guys you’re playing with and getting a sense for where on the ice they might be.”
McDavid’s vision is one thing, but his wheels and skill set are otherworldly. If he runs out of room to operate, he simply creates more of it.
Where did he pick that up, or did it just come naturally? “I’m not really sure,” he said.” He does, however, credit a lifelong fan of his for laying the foundation.
“That’s something that my dad taught me when I was young—when you get the puck, keep skating faster as opposed to slowing down,” said McDavid. “It’s definitely a hard thing to do. A lot of guys, when they get the puck, they like to slow down and look for the easy play. When I get the puck, I like to speed up and put the defender in an awkward spot.”
No player wants to miss 37 games in a season, especially when that player is a rookie, which is what happened to McDavid in 2015-16. There’s a lot to learn as a first-year pro, and every contest is a lecture in NHL 101.
Attendance be damned, McDavid aced the course anyway, missing time but not a single beat. The expectations for him going into 2016-17 were massive, and to this point, he’s lived up to them.
Through 11 games, McDavid has recorded 13 points (five goals, eight assists), just one shy of the league lead.
Oilers head coach Todd McLellan compared McDavid to a “fighter pilot.”
“He has a skill set that very few people have,” said McLellan. “He can analyze plays going at full speed and react to what’s coming at him.”
Center Mark Letestu attributed the super sophomore’s performance to motivation. “What makes him tick is that he’s incredibly competitive,” said Letestu. “He wants to be the best. I think that drives all of the great players. He has that fabric.”
When asked if he ever gets mesmerized watching McDavid out on the ice, Letestu pled guilty. “I try not to, but there are times when he does things on the ice where you just sit there and think ‘Wow.’”
The youngest captain in NHL history, McDavid said he’s ready for whatever comes with the territory.
“I’m definitely very comfortable with it,” he said. “But I think the main thing is that we have a locker room full of guys that are leaders in their own way, and they do a lot of talking in the room as well. It makes being the captain of this team very easy when you have a bunch of leaders in the room.”
Indeed, life has come at McDavid pretty fast, but that’s exactly what he’s hardwired to cope with.