Monday, 28 September 2015

McDavid for real

The Edmonton Oilers gather at their bench during a break on Saturday.
    Jim Harrison’s Edmonton Oilers record for points in a game might be jeopardy one day, if Connor McDavid has anything to say about it.
    Way back on Jan. 30, 1973, Harrison notched 10 points for the Oilers in one game during their inaugural season of professional hockey in the World Hockey Association with three goals and seven assists, when club was still known as the Alberta Oilers. The Oiler thumped the New York Raiders that night 11-3.
    For those that saw McDavid play during Saturday’s NHL exhibition game at the SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon, one could see him possibly matching or breaking that record during one extremely hot performance. He could easily match the Oilers NHL record for points in a game at eight, which has occurred four times in team history with the last coming from Sam Gagner on Feb. 2, 2012.
    The 18-year-old centre only had one assist during the Oilers 3-0 victory over the Minnesota Wild, but he was the best player on the ice. During his whole hockey career to this point, the Newmarket, Ont., product has been labeled a phenom. The label fits.
    McDavid is one of three players in the history of the Ontario Hockey League to be granted Exceptional Player status, which allowed him to play a full season in the major junior ranks at age 15. Normally, a player has to be age 16 to play a full campaign at the major junior level.
    Last season, McDavid, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 195 pounds, piled up 44 goals and 76 assists in 47 regular season games with the Erie Otters. He went on to net 21 goals and 28 assists in 20 post-season contests.
    When he wasn’t in the OHL, McDavid was a hero helping Canada win gold at the world junior hockey championships back in January posting three goals and eight assists in seven games.
    The 7,541 spectators that saw McDavid play on Saturday will have to admit they saw something special that night. He could have easily had six or seven points in that contest.
    Playing on a line with Leon Draisaitl and Anton Slepyshev, McDavid made a number of beauty passing plays to create scoring chances. When he passed the puck, it seemed to have eyes.
    On one play in the first working in tight on the Minnesota goal, McDavid made a blind backwards pass that landed on the tape of Slepyshev’s stick. The Russian had an open net to shoot at, but looked surprised for a second his linemate made such a play. Slepyshev failed to score.
    The pair had a two-on-one chance a few minutes later, but Slepyshev fanned on shooting a perfectly placed set-up pass from McDavid.
    Besides his playmaking, McDavid also created a pair of breakaways. Early in the second, McDavid had his first breakaway, but he was turned away by Wild goaltender Darcy Kuemper. In the third, McDavid stole the puck from a Wild defender at the Minnesota blue-line to create his second breakaway, but he fired a shot just wide of the goal.
    As far as playing style goes, McDavid resembles Wayne Gretzky, but that doesn’t mean the young prodigy will become as great as “The Great One.”
    Gretzky is the top hockey icon in Canada, whose gift for the game of hockey allowed the Oilers to win four Stanley Cups in the 1980s. He also stood out on the international stage helping Canada win Canada Cup titles in 1984, 1987 and 1991.
    After his playing days wrapped up, Gretzky put together Canada’s gold medal winning team at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, and his post-game media tirade following 3-3 draw with the Czech Republic to close the preliminary round help rally a country to the Canadian flag to power the playoff round push.
    To say McDavid might one day become an all-time hockey great like Gretzky or Mario Lemieux might be too much to ask. If McDavid has a career that is similar to Bryan Trottier, Dale Hawerchuk, Teemu Selanne or Jarome Iginla, that might be a more realistic expectation.
    McDavid was the first overall selection in June’s NHL Entry Draft, and the draft’s history is loaded with first overall busts as well as stars.
    As the years move on, McDavid has to continue to work on his physical conditioning. Most NHLers are well built men, and 18-year-olds tend to have the bodies of high school graduates, which is often something that can’t be circumvented due to the natural development of the human body.
    In the old days of hockey when players didn’t train year round, it was easier for an 18-year-old to break into the NHL and have a huge immediate impact.
    McDavid needs to keep up with his physical training and avoid major injuries, if he is to have a Hall of Fame type career. As the saying goes, “Hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard.”
    When talent does work hard, you get players like basketball legend Michael Jordan, football great Warren Moon, Iginla and Gretzky.
    McDavid’s career must be allowed to play out for what it is. If he does realize his potential, Harrison’s long standing record may finally go up in smoke.

Other thoughts from Saskatoon’s NHL exhibition game

The Oilers and Wild set for a faceoff in the Minnesota zone.
    It is always hard judge how good an NHL exhibition tilt is, especially when don’t ice what would be a normal regular season roster.
    Under the guidance of new head coach Todd McLellan, the Oilers played with a lot more structure than they did when they visited Saskatoon in the 2014 pre-season, when they fell 5-0 to the Chicago Blackhawks. The habits the Oilers are focusing on new will help them when the regular season rolls around. Will they end their drought of not making the NHL playoffs that dates back to 2006, when they last made the Stanley Cup finals, that might still be a see it to believe it thing.
    As for other observations:
  • The attendance figure of 7,541 has to be viewed as a disappointment, but not unexpected. Last year’s game drew 10,760 spectators, but since Toronto-based promoter John Graham started bringing NHL pre-season games to Saskatoon starting in 2009, locals saw their fair share of dud games. With ticket prices ranging from $59.50 to $112 including fees, ticket buyers likely did not want to suffer through watching a contest where usually half the players were not full-time NHLers from the previous season. The fact the Oilers confirmed McDavid would play the day before the contest didn’t provide enough time for some to possibly reconsider going.
  • This year’s game overall was better than last year’s when the Blackhawks claimed victory over the Oilers. Was it good enough to warrant paying the high ticket prices, that is debatable, but ticket buyers were likely better off spending their money elsewhere. The Wild dressed a lot of non-NHLers, so they could ice more of a regular roster at home on Sunday, when they thrashed the Winnipeg Jets 8-1.
  •  Don’t underestimate how big of a fan base the Oilers have in Saskatoon and area. Most of the crowd showed up wearing Oilers gear. You almost felt like you were in Edmonton.
  • In recent years, the Oilers had a reputation for being not all that friendly media wise, when it came to accessing players for interviews. At last year’s NHL exhibition game, you had to pester team officials to get players you requested. Now under new general manager and president of hockey operations Peter Chiarelli and McLellan as head coach, the media area was flooded with all sorts of players for post-game interviews after this year’s contest. Access wasn’t a problem, and it seemed like everyone was up for answering questions. For those that wanted to talk to Russian product Slepyshev, whose English isn’t that strong, his countryman and Oilers teammate Nail Yakupov provided services as an interpreter.
  • While the Oilers were the big attraction, there were strong cheers for Wild netminder Kuemper, who is from Saskatoon. He looked strong stopping 27 of 29 shots fired his way playing in front of a large contingent of family and friends.
  • Oilers left-winger Luke Gazdic and Wild defenceman Marco Scandella had a spirited fight near the end of the third period shortly after the Oilers iced the contest with an empty-net goal.
  • I worked Saturday’s game for The Canadian Press. If you want to see that story, you can do so on the TSN site by clicking right here.

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