At just 20 years old, Connor McDavid easily earning role of Oilers' captain

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Monday March 13th, 2017

The first explicit waves of internal support came rushing through Edmonton last April, when the Oilers held exit meetings after the 2015-16 season and their players all but arrived toting rubber stamps. Again and again, over the course of conversation, talk kept turning to the group's vacant captaincy. Again and again, the teenager’s name kept popping up. "They weren't poked or prodded with direct questions," says coach Todd McLellan. "But a number of them mentioned that it was time for Connor to take the team and lead it. It was evident that the team was ready to support him."

That Edmonton surprised exactly no one by making Connor McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history—at 19 years, 226 days old upon the early-October announcement—indeed seemed long ago embossed in orange and blue ink. He had already served the same role under McLellan for Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, and before that with the Ontario Hockey League's Erie Otters during his final season of Canadian juniors in '14-15. Heck, as a kid he would insist that his mother snip little C's out of felt material and sew them onto his replica Maple Leafs and Penguins jerseys. "Always had to have one," Kelly McDavid says. "Then it got to the point where he got older and he would just do it himself."

So it should also come as no surprise that McDavid, now 20 years old and the league's scoring leader with 75 points through Sunday, has embraced the demands and fame of his new gig with the same unflinching calm displayed while zipping on the rush, or dancing around defensemen, or tugging the Oilers (35-24-9, 79 points) toward their first postseason appearance in a decade. Postgame interviews after tough losses? Sprawling lines of autograph hounds? Community speaking engagements, like last weekend's gala honoring local police officers? No sweat. "You wouldn't know he's a hockey player, if that makes sense," says Darnell Nurse, an Edmonton defenseman and McDavid's roommate. "He's not burdened by anything."

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This was readily evident a month and a half ago, when SI met McDavid at the 2017 NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles. Midway through a 20-minute interview in a hotel room at the JW Marriott, an Oilers media relations official interrupted to hand over a stack of pucks, several mini-sticks and a silver Sharpie. "For later," the official said. McDavid, whom fans had elected captain of the Pacific Division for the 3-on-3 tournament, shrugged. "I can multitask," he reassured, and then began scribbling his signature in robotic, practiced fashion without breaking conversational stride.

"He's like the Bobby Orrs, the Wayne Gretzkys, the Sidney Crosbys, on that pedestal from such a young age,” says Edmonton general manager Peter Chiarelli. “A lot of times young guys don't grow, per se, in those environments. They actually fail, because they like being on the pedestal and they're characters otherwise. His [foundation] is solid, consistent, stable."

Milan Lucic learned as much last summer, when the veteran forward was surveying his options in free agency. Over the course of due diligence, Lucic had spoken with both Chiarelli, his former GM in Boston, and Andrew Ference, a former Bruins teammate who served as Edmonton's captain from 2013-15. The main subject was McDavid. "Just wanted to learn more about his personality," Lucic says. "What's he like around the locker room? What's his attitude toward the game? Is he a hothead? Is he frustrated? Is he a positive guy? Does he work with his teammates?"

The reports were glowing. "You could see the skillset just by being out with him on the ice," says Lucic, who ultimately signed for seven years and $42 million. (Lucic wasn't the only McDavid-influenced recruit that landed in Edmonton, either; McLellan too reports he was lured by the prospect of coaching an all-world talent.) "Now being around him, he's such a great guy, he loves the game of hockey and he values the right things in life. He doesn't have that arrogance to him, that cockiness that he thinks he's better than you. I think that's a reason why he's the captain already."

Given McDavid's preordained status as Canada's latest prodigious product—see: Orr, Gretzky, Crosby, et al.—the 20-year-old is naturally wary of how his star-dusted profile comes across to peers. "You don't want to be that big shot, some guy who's some…whatever," he says. "You're definitely conscious. You definitely get made fun of a little bit from your teammates, little jabs here and there, which makes it fun."

Around the league, though, outright respect far outweighs petty jealousy. Last season, when Lucic played for Los Angeles, he remembers joking with Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Drew Doughty about McDavid. "One day," Lucic said, "he's going to roast you." "I know," Doughty replied, "he's going to get me one day." Now that he skates for Edmonton, Lucic reports that at least one friend on an opposing team has asked about scoring an autographed No. 97 McDavid jersey.

"You talk about what he is to the game, that's what he already become," Lucic says. "Just talking to some former teammates, guys I've played with in Boston and in LA, they see how good he is on TV, and they ask, 'How good is he?' I tell them, 'This is how he is.'"

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Asked how McDavid has improved as Edmonton's captain, Lucic speaks of communication: "If something needs to be said to the coach or to a player or anything like that, he's learning how to say things as far as that goes, with confidence and in the right way. I think at the start of the season, he wasn't sure. Now what's impressed me is that he's not afraid to say what the team and what he's thinking, and work with Todd on that.

“The players have to be on the same page as the coaches, and it's up to the captain to be that middle ground. That's a huge part of the captain's job. It's great to see him leading in that aspect."

An observation could be made that McDavid has grown more comfortable speaking his mind publicly, too. Witness, for instance, his frustration in December upon getting pulled by the NHL's new concussion spotters for mandated protocol. Or how McDavid blasted Philadelphia's Brandon Manning three days later for "classless" comments allegedly stemming from their collision in Nov. 2015, which fractured McDavid's collarbone and caused him to miss three months of his rookie season.

"He represents himself," McLellan says. "He's allowed to have emotion, too. He also represents the Oilers and his teammates and hockey as a whole. If he has an opinion, and it's a calculated opinion, he should be willing to share that."

McDavid, for his part, deflects credit to what McLellan calls "our larger leadership group," an assembly of veterans, including Lucic, that Oilers brass designated to help his ascension into the captaincy.

"They're always giving you little pieces here and there of something that might have happened to them that you can learn from," McDavid says. "They're guys who are there to help you in any way they can. Our older guys are unbelievable. They're so genuine, so caring. They want to help you. They understand the league, what it's like."

The Oilers, on the other hand, might argue that McDavid arrived with a perfectly firm grasp on NHL life. Nurse, who’s two years older, began picking up on McDavid’s strict nutritional habits. “You don’t want to be the guy ordering Dominoes in the middle of the night when your roommate’s eating salad,” he says. “He takes his diet to another level.” The mental side hasn’t been an issue, either. As McDavid plodded through his rehab last season, Chiarelli began picking his brain about junior prospects that Edmonton was scouting for the 2016 draft. “Sometimes guys don’t notice who they’re playing against, because they’re not as good or inconsequential,” Chiarelli says. “Connor had a full book on them.”

As for when they began realizing that Edmonton had found its next captain, several members of the organization point to McDavid's return from the collarbone injury, against Columbus on Feb. 2, 2016—all of 14 games into his NHL career. Midway through the second period, he gained possession in the neutral zone and split two Blue Jackets defensemen at their blue line, toe-dragging so smoothly that one fell down and the other wound up facing the opposite direction, before deking past goalie Joonas Korpisalo. It remains perhaps his most dazzling goal to date.

"At the start, I think everyone was a little suspect," Lucic says. "You hear about all these guys, and the hype, and all that type of stuff that comes with it. But then the way he was able to play when he came back from that injury, I think it caught everyone's eyes that this kid really is the real deal. Everyone who's been talking about him being the Next One, they definitely weren't lying."

Says Bob Nicholson, CEO and vice chairman of Oilers Entertainment Group, "I'm sure the bench was going, 'Wow, this is the guy to lead us.'"

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