He’s answered all the questions that have come his way this season. His continued excellence has cemented his position atop the draft boards for the upcoming NHL Draft. His play at the 2015 World Junior Championship, where he served as assistant captain, tied for the tournament lead in scoring, and was named to the tournament All-Star team en route to leading Canada to a gold medal, solidified his reputation on the international stage. And he did the latter after missing the better part of the season with a broken hand — an injury he was only cleared of just days before the start of the WJC.
So now, all that’s left is a Memorial Cup to cap his junior resume. But Connor McDavid said he and his Erie Otters are ready to deal with the expectations that come from being the presumptive OHL favorites.
“We were that last year, too,” he said. “We were in a similar spot last year. Obviously we weren’t able to close, so that just makes everyone hungrier this year.”
He said that the experience of winning World Junior gold will translate to his work with Erie — though he couldn’t pinpoint what it was directly.
“I think we’re trying to do the same thing — and that’s win,” he said. “To be able to do that at the world juniors, there are some little things I guess. I’m not really too sure, but having that experience was good and will help in the long run.”
Otters’ general manager Sherry Bassin said that ephemeral nature is a hallmark of the greats.
“When he got interviewed after winning the gold medal — and I’ve been lucky enough to win a Cup — he made a comment that all of us who have been through it understood,” Bassin said. “He said, ‘you can’t describe it. Unless you’ve been through it you can’t describe it.’ We can tell you it’s great and it’s phenomenal, but you can’t understand until you’ve lived it. And I picked up on that. Here’s a young kid expressing this.
“This is how mature he is. Everybody else was saying, ‘Oh it’s the greatest,’ and he just said ‘You can’t describe it.’ That’s a 17-year-old kid talking.”
McDavid said, with this being potentially his final year of junior, he would love to go out on top.
“It’s obviously important. Everyone wants to win and we have some good pieces in there,” McDavid added. “We’re a good team and we have a good shot here.”
Bassin was a little more definitive in his timeline.
“This IS his last year. There’s no maybes about it,” he said. “This guy’s going to get 50 or 60 points in the NHL next year. This guy’s a franchise player.”
Erie’s gone all-in this year, picking up Nick Baptiste, Jake Marchment, and Remi Elie — adding to an already formidable Otters’ lineup. But the biggest addition, in Bassin’s mind, is the return of McDavid after nearly two months off with a broken hand, suffered in a mid-November fight.
“It’s more than picking up three guys. We thought we were competitive and this would make us more competitive,” he said. “Everybody said, ‘You got three new guys,’ and I said, ‘No, no. We haven’t had McDavid for two months. Getting those other three guys plus McDavid makes six. That was my evaluation.”
McDavid possessed the most famous right hand in Canada for a long time. He wasn’t cleared for action until just before the World Juniors and it took him some time to get back into the flow of the game. But once he did, he showed why he’s the latest to bear the “Next One” label.
“I think it’s not a problem. There was maybe a little bit of [tentative play] at the beginning, but you’re going to get that after any injury,” McDavid added. “It’s fine.”
He added that he didn’t have much time to reflect upon his World Junior victory as it was back to the OHL very quickly following the win.
“The Monday night was fun with the guys. Just hanging around with the guys and enjoying the experience,” McDavid explained. “The next day was really just rest and then I was back on the way to Erie. It’s been a bit of a quick turnaround.
“It was a great experience and it’s something I’ll never forget.
McDavid returned to the Otters’ post-World Juniors and has picked up where he left off. Prior to the injury, he had 16 goals and 35 assists in 18 games. In the three games since his return, he’s scored one goal each game and added two assists. He said adjusting to the OHL pace following playing with — and against — the best 18- and 19-year-olds in the world hasn’t been too difficult.
“It’s a little bit different,” McDavid said. “Obviously it’s not as high-stakes, but it’s still pretty good hockey and you still need to be at your best.”
Many players struggle during their draft-eligible year with the pressure. And those aren’t even the ones being expected to be Canada’s next great superstar. But Bassin said that McDavid, like some of those greats, thrives in that environment.
“It’s not pressure on him. None of the great guys feel that pressure,” he said. “[Sidney] Crosby, these guys? It’s opportunity. They don’t look at it as pressure, they look at it as opportunity.”
And Bassin just can’t say enough good things about his young captain. “For him, you know, last year he was a leader for us and we got beat out in the finals of the West,” Bassin added. “He’s a better person than he is a player and you know how good of a player he is? He’s just special.
“He’s just such a pleasure to be around; he’s way beyond your imagination.”
Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @