It was another day at the office for Connor McDavid, albeit a much larger office with many more sets of eyes watching he and his Erie Otters’ teammates defeat the Niagara IceDogs, 8-4, at First Niagara Center in Buffalo, NY.
McDavid netted a goal and added three assists for a four-point night, an outing that has been pretty much the norm at this early juncture of the 2014-15 season. The player considered by most to be the top prospect available for the 2015 NHL Draft – and one of the best players available for the draft in the past 10 years – brought his OHL-leading point total to 29 (9G, 20A) in just 10 games after this performance.
Adding to the significance of the evening was the fact that the game took place in an arena that is the home of an NHL team that, come late June, could well be in a position to select the budding superstar with the first overall pick. The Buffalo Sabres, who finished last in the NHL in 2013-14, have gotten off to a similarly moribund start to the 2014-15 season, making them a prime candidate to choose McDavid at the 2015 draft.
While the significance of playing in front of mostly Sabres’ fans on this night wasn’t lost on McDavid, he knows that his future NHL home is far from certain at this time.
“I don’t really know what’s going to happen, with the whole draft process and everything like that,” said McDavid. “But, if I am fortunate enough to play in the city of Buffalo for the Sabres, then that would be a tremendous honor. But, at the end of the day, it’s the NHL, every organization’s first class, and anywhere you go will be a dream come true. So, whether it’s the Sabres or anywhere else, it will be a special day.”
If Sabres’ fans were drooling over the possibility of landing McDavid prior to the tilt with the IceDogs, it could well be a deluge of Niagara Falls proportions after having the chance to see him in action up close rather than on YouTube.
One person that has had the opportunity to watch and judge McDavid’s performances over the past couple of seasons was not surprised by his outing in Buffalo, but he nevertheless marvels at some of the plays that McDavid can make.
“He’ll do all kinds of things that really impress you,” said Erie Otters‘ head coach Kris Knoblauch of his prized center. “I’ve had the pleasure of coaching him for almost two full seasons, now; whether it’s a game or a practice, once a night or more, there’s something like, “I never thought of that”, or “Didn’t see that coming”. Connor is certainly a treat to watch, and an even bigger treat to coach.”
One such play against the IceDogs didn’t end in a goal for McDavid, but it was nevertheless the highlight reel play of the evening. McDavid rushed the puck up ice into the offensive zone where he undressed IceDogs’ defenseman Vince Dunn to break in alone on goaltender Brent Moran, who stopped the Otters’ forward in close with a pad save.
McDavid picked up three assists in the game’s opening frame, assisting on two goals by Alex Debrincat and one by Kurtis MacDermid. McDavid’s goal came in the third period, on the rebound of a shot by Jesse Saban.
The Otters also received a two-assist performance from another top 2015 prospect, center Dylan Strome. Having two players of the caliber of McDavid and Strome, who currently hold the top two spots in OHL scoring, is a luxury that Otters’ coach Knoblauch is happy to have at his disposal.
“For our team to have a #1 centerman, and a #2 centerman to lead the league in scoring on two different lines is nice to have,” admitted Knoblauch. “We spent half the season with (Strome) on the same line (as McDavid), with injuries and things, but it’s certainly nice to have a one-two punch.”
Much of the hype around McDavid’s game is centered around his offensive prowess. But the Newmarket, ON native has other aspects of his game that are coming to the fore this season, including some feistiness along with some improved defensive play. Both were on display in the game against the IceDogs.
“I think you saw a little bit of that, I guess,” McDavid said of the added edge to his game. “Obviously, I’m not just going to let guys just push me around out there. When they try to give you a run, why not try to give one back? It’s a two-way street.
“But you talk about defense, and that’s something I take great pride in. Today, to play in the NHL you can’t be just an offensive player, you have to be a full, 200-foot player, so that’s what I’m trying to do with my game right now.”
For McDavid and his teammates, the two-day stop in Buffalo was an enjoyable break from the routine of the junior season. Having the chance to compete in an NHL arena, in front of nearly 12,000 fans, was a memorable experience for the young squad.
“Yeah, it’s been a little slice of heaven for us,” McDavid said with a laugh. “We were joking, we were in the media room, or the player’s room, I guess, and we were getting all this food, as much as you could possibly eat. We were joking that it’s not what we’re used to, 12-hour bus trips and that kind of thing, but it’s junior hockey for you and everyone’s been through it.
“It’s been unbelievable, obviously, being in this facility, even though we were just in the away (locker) room, it’s a pretty nice room. I got to see the actual Sabres’ dressing room, and it’s spectacular. Obviously, the fans are incredible, for 11,000-plus to come out to watch a junior hockey game just kind of speaks to their love for hockey and passion.”
But now it’s on to the next game, and another chance for McDavid to dazzle another crowded arena with his advanced skills. But Knoblauch thinks his young star will continue to take the extra attention in stride, as he did in Buffalo.
“I think he’s used to it,” said Knoblauch. “He’s been in the spotlight for a long time, now – obviously, this game is a little different than the others. If he’s got an interview request, he does it. Tonight, with more fans and more people watching, he was a little more driven to put on a show, but you get that from him every night. He wants to be the best player, and tonight was no different.”