Scout’s Perch: McDavid showing signs of becoming “The Real Deal”

By Josh Deitell

Connor McDavid - Erie Otters

Photo: Erie Otters forward Connor McDavid is just 15 but is already showing signs of becoming a dominant player in the OHL (courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

I heard the hype. I read Sid’s praise. I talked to a scout from a successful NHL team who joked that the only way his club would ever have a shot at him would be through winning a ping pong ball lottery, essentially anointing him with 1st overall status almost three years before his draft day.

And you know what? Now I get it.

When I walked into the newly renamed Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, PA on both of the nights I saw Connor McDavid play, I had high expectations. What I came away with was the impression that I had seen a very special player, not just because of his ability (which I’ll detail a bit later), but because he’s the rare breed of top talent able to meet and exceed expectations despite recognizing their presence.

That he’s leading his team in scoring (18 points in 15 games) with the knowledge that the OHL scouts once scrutinizing him from the stands have become NHL scouts with more critical eyes says something about his mental toughness. That’s an incredible enough feat for a 15-year-old playing 350 kilometers from home, but it’s even more impressive when considering how much he means to the OHL, the Erie Otters, and the city of Erie.

The Erie organization is undergoing a major rebuild in every sense of the word. The team finished last season with a 10-52-6 record, posting the fewest wins in an OHL season since Mississauga’s three-win campaign in 2000-01. Most of the team’s veterans were traded away last season in an attempt to usher in a youth movement.

A physical overhaul is also taking place to the team’s arena while the Otters continue to play, providing a strange backdrop for hockey. A massive brown plastic tarp drapes from roof to floor behind the west end goal, blocking seat renovations from view. The team’s banners have been taken down for safekeeping, leaving the walls above the suites at the east end of the rink barren. Parallel to the ice and atop the seating run construction girders outlining the new suite level.

Despite the lingering bad taste from last season and some construction pains to deal with, Otters fans have to be hopeful about the future. The addition of McDavid has been a boon in the biggest way for a team struggling to carve out an identity. He’s the type of elite talent any junior team covets to light up the scoreboard and fill the seats, but more importantly, he’s showing the makings of a leader.

I’m not going to be one of the people who calls McDavid “the next Crosby” because I recognize that they’re different players, but I will say that in one particular moment I saw a flash of Sid that I believe there is some value in mentioning.

Crosby is impulsive. When poked, he responds. Regardless of what stance you take on the verbal battles he wages, you have to acknowledge there’s a fiery, competitive passion behind the way he plays. That passion has propelled him to greatness in every aspect of the game, and is also a major reason he’s such a polarizing figure. That passion is what separates the Alexandre Daigle's of the world from the… well, the Sidney Crosby's.

Last week’s game between Erie and Soo went to a shootout. For those of you unfamiliar with Nick Cousins, he’s the type of player who steps out on the ice every night with the intention of making the entire opposing team hate him. He’s good at it, too. Mixing it up with a grin after the whistles and taunting the Otters’ bench, playing the body well and often, and posting three assists, Cousins elicited a lot of attention to the point of distraction.

When McDavid missed his shot in the shootout, Cousins and some of the other Greyhounds on the bench gave it to him pretty good as he skated back to the bench. I didn’t expect a response from a high school sophomore when incited by a college-aged Philadelphia Flyers’ draft pick, but I was curious to see what he’d do.

When Cousins missed his shot, McDavid was the first one to chirp him. It had a fire behind it, too. I’m not calling that confirmation of McDavid’s superstar status, but it does reveal the type of push-back mentality that a player who’ll always have a target on his back needs to not just be successful, but to be great. That he’s comfortable enough to be vocal just a few weeks into his OHL career is a great sign that he’s transitioning well into the league.

McDavid is not an elite hockey player yet, just an elite talent, but it’s impossible to watch him and not appreciate what he brings to the table. He’s the type of player who fans will pay to see, even if the Otters remain a basement team this season.

He’s the real deal.

The following are some brief reports based on notes gathered over the last few weeks for prospects eligible in 2013 and beyond. Full disclosure: all are from one or two game samples. These are not intended to be gospel, just a brief insight. These are not ordered by rank. After McDavid, the players are listed chronologically based on the date I saw them play.

Connor McDavid, C, Erie Otters (OHL) [2015-eligible]
McDavid plays a north-south game that revolves around his elite level skating, vision, and stickhandling. His mindset seems to revolve largely around isolating opponents and winning 1-on-1 battles with them. Ability to change gears deceptively is his biggest asset. Acceleration was impressive to watch. Was able to gain separation from defenders for breakaway opportunities on a regular basis in numerous fashions: by freeing himself for a long outlet, or by exploding into open space upon reception of the puck, or by going end-to-end. Makes poised decisions at top speed, though he’s still learning what will and won’t work against OHL talent. Very shifty along the boards and behind the net, great stops/starts and use of edges. Overall fantastic tempo to his game. Showed a tendency to break out early to stretch the defense, which is only a problem because once his teammates moved the puck up to him, none of them could catch up. While he did have some success and showed some fantastic 1-on-1 ability, the Otters really need to get him some quality linemates as he was forcing the play and taking on multiple players much too often. Tried to deke the puck into the net on multiple occasions. Passed up numerous high quality shot opportunities in favor of complicated stickhandling maneuvers. Didn’t take shifts off. Showed determination along the boards and in front of the net but was over-matched physically on numerous occasions. Pursued loose pucks with vigor and was unafraid to take the puck to the net. Offensive zone awareness is top notch. On the rush without the puck, went straight to the net front without hesitation to draw defenders and open himself up. Corraled passes with seemingly magnetic ease. On the powerplay, tended to keep things simple with quick, receivable passes. A menace along the goal line with the ability to find teammates’ sticks through net-front traffic. Defensive positioning needs work. Tended to float in the neutral zone and chase the puck in the defensive zone. Often looked lost in coverage. Effort was encouraging, unreasonable to expect much beyond that from a player his age. Showed a quick stick defensively often enough to say that he could develop into a quality two-way forward.  A little passive on the PK, but had a good idea of where to be.

Ryan Cloonan, LW, Boston Junior Bruins (EJHL) [2013-eligible]
Cloonan is an outstanding raw offensive talent. Was a step ahead of everyone on the ice, including his teammates. His stride is quick and efficient and he showed great burst quickness in addition to the ability to make plays at top speed. Flashy stickhandling ability allowed him to create space for himself and maintain possession for extended periods of time. Carried the puck with authority. Capable of going end-to-end as well as acting as a one-man cycle. Very shifty. Unafraid to drive the middle. Was guilty of trying to do too much on almost every shift. Did not utilize his teammates well. Effort was inconsistent, particularly defensively. On one occasion he showed great burst in puck pursuit and threw a nice hit to separate his opponent from the puck. For most of the rest of the game, he floated and waited for the offense to restart. Convince him to go 100% all the time and he could be a dynamic two-way player.

Haralds Egle, F, Portland Jr. Pirates (EJHL) [2014-eligible]
Leading Portland in scoring as one of the youngest players in the EJHL. He has an outstanding shot. Absolutely crushed a one-timer for a goal and got great velocity on wristers. Good skater and stickhandler, showed some flashes of brilliance but I got the impression that he tries to play a pretty simple game overall (dumping the puck, making safe passes, etc.). Much more of a professional style than most of the players surrounding him, which illustrated an appreciation for detail that I think will serve him well. Intelligent positioning in the offensive zone. Chippy along the boards. Defense needs work, had issues with coverage and was inconsistent with his backchecking effort. Could see him developing into a pretty good triggerman.

Jason Dickinson, LW, Guelph Storm (OHL) [2013-eligible]
Dickinson still has a lot of filling out to do but his size and skill combination is intriguing. Biggest asset is his reach. Protected the puck well and was difficult to deal with along the boards. Showed confident and assertive stickhandling and a great shot. Was deceptive in outnumbered attack situations, equally capable of using his reach to feather a pass or change his shooting angle to get a shot through. Effort was inconsistent at both ends, particularly defensively. Passive and uninvolved on a number of shifts.

Hunter Garlent, C, Guelph Storm (OHL) [2013-eligible]
Skilled and gritty, but undersized. His motor never stops. Fearlessly went to the corners and net front with and without the puck and showed intense determination to fight through checks. Flashed great hands along the boards and in tight around the net. Easy player to like as he plays an honest, hardworking game but could stand to add mass and more evasiveness.

Anthony DeAngelo, D, Sarnia Sting (OHL) [2014-eligible]
One of a growing number of high-risk OHL defensemen with elite offensive talent. Think Ryan Ellis or Ryan Murphy. Skating is top notch. Quick feet in all zones, particularly when set up on the power-play. Heavy slapshot. Good wrist shot with a quick release. Flashy, hazardous plays plague his game. Saucer passes to his defense partner across the middle over a forechecker’s stick while penalty killing won’t work as he ranks up. Joined the rush with frequency and showed end-to-end capability as well as the ability to make plays at high speed, but on two occasions he over-committed himself and was forced to race back to his own zone to try and cover up, leading to overextended shifts and lapses in defensive coverage. Biggest challenge will be to simplify his game without taking away from his game-breaking ability. Undersized and not aggressive enough. Defensive positioning was good overall, including on the PK, but he was pushed around on numerous occasions and struggled to keep bigger forwards in check.

Niklay Goldobin, RW, Sarnia Sting (OHL) [2013-eligible]
Daniel Nikandrov, C, Sarnia Sting (OHL) [2013-eligible]
I know that it seems like by listing these two players together that I’m just categorizing based on their background, but that’s not the case. The two linemates are equally enigmatic and share many of the same strengths and weaknesses. Both play a very shifty style with fantastic stickhandling and deceptiveness. When they found chemistry with each other, they dazzled. Both tried to do too much with the puck with regularity and had a hard time dealing with physical play. Neither showed much interest in defense. For their skill alone, they’re worth keeping an eye on.

Scout's Perch will be a regular feature over the course of the 2012-13 season with Josh Deitell providing his observations from the road as he scouts various players primarily for the 2013 NHL Draft.