Every few NHL seasons, a new player screams into the league like a comet. It’s a burning flash of goals, raucous crowds and unconquerable expectations. When he was healthy last season, Edmonton forward Connor McDavid’s impact set the league ablaze. But this year, he’s dealing with a whole new set of expectations that includes walking the paths of some of the greatest to ever take the ice. He’s planning on doing it his own way too.
Throughout McDavid’s rookie season, he scored at a torrid pace, finishing with 48 points in 45 games. Opposing teams looked like a gaggle of drunks trying to catch an escaped housecat. That sheer dominance raised expectations on McDavid personally. He admits himself, that the stakes are a bit higher now, but it’s nothing he’s not used to, having been a top player in junior hockey and the first overall draft pick in 2015.
“This year I think there’s more pressure to perform and that’s good,” McDavid says. “It’s something I’ve always had to deal with, it’s nothing new to me.”
In the waning moments of the offseason, with roster battles underway and a translucent picture of the upcoming season, McDavid was bestowed the honor of serving as his team’s captain. He’s the youngest player to ever receive the honor, joining Gabriel Landeskog, Sidney Crosby and Vincent Lecavalier as the only teenage captains in league history.
“It’s something that we all talked about for a little bit,” he admits, of the impending naming of a captain in the offseason. “Coming in, we didn’t know which way they were going to go, but I think it’s a good a time as ever. We’re in a turnover period where we’re trying to do something special.”
He adds, “Hopefully I’m a part of it for a long long time, could be that guy that wears the letter for a long time in Edmonton.”
The mercurial manner in which teams are run is such a stark contrast to the driving loyalty of fandom. Front offices create a carousel of coaches, captains and top-line talents, while fans die by the logo. McDavid has a chance to be that rare star the transcends the capriciousness of professional sports. Who avoids the slog from fan-favorite to hopeful waiver-wire candidate or the “trade for a bag of pucks,” trope.
A startling example of those challenges – although with much less fanfare – is Dustin Brown from the Los Angeles Kings. He went from young captain, to Stanley Cup champion to untradable asset by the time he was 30 years old. McDavid is hoping the decade that encompasses his 20s has significantly better personal results – although he’d probably settle for multiple Stanley Cup rings.
Lecavalier too, faced a challenging twilight of his career, but also retires a Stanley Cup Champion.
But still, despite the added pressure of wearing a hockey sweater with an embroidered letter C above his heart, McDavid understands and appreciates the honor.
“It’s a pretty unbelievable feeling, I’m really honored and humbled to captain the Oilers for how much history they do have,” he says “With the guys that have worn the ‘C’ in Edmonton it’s pretty amazing to kind of join that.”
Edmonton, with all its isolation, is sort of a weird place geographically for a professional sports franchise. It’s smack in the middle of Alberta, three hours north of Calgary. It’s the gateway to a northern frontier, to diamond mines, saw mills and oil fields, lands mostly untouched by whatever the Canadian version of manifest destiny was.
As McDavid alluded to, there’s a tradition of excellence in Edmonton, especially in the 1980s. The dynasty teams captured five Stanley Cups in six years and were captained by some of the greatest players ever to lace up the skates: Wayne Gretzky, the game’s most iconic player and Mark Messier, so great at doing whatever it is a captain does, that they named a trophy after him.
Still, McDavid is kind of doing this thing in his own, without the helpful nostalgia of past captains.
“I don’t talk about that much with anyone,” he admits. “I think, I wouldn’t be in that position if I wasn’t comfortable or ready for it, nothing really has to be said or anything like that.”
Within the locker room however, it’s a slightly different story. McDavid said there are guys who are vocal leaders and it doesn’t really matter if they have a letter on their jersey or not. There are guys that have worn letters in the past and guys that have been around the league for a while, so the leadership group is strong.
Ultimately, as the star player goes, usually does the team, as well, and as a unit, expectations are elevated for an Edmonton Oilers team that’s finished near the bottom of the league for several years running. It’s a transition period, but one in which more winning than not is expected.
“There’s a lot more expectation here in Edmonton now,” McDavid recognizes. “And there should be. We made a lot of good moves in the offseason and brought in a lot of good pieces. [Our young players are] one year older and that’s more experience. So all of that should add up to more expectation coming into the year.”
McDavid expects he and the Oilers will be able to play Western Conference-style hockey, traditionally thought of as a heavier and more aggressive type of play. Although, since it’s a copycat league and the Pittsburgh Penguins depth and killer speed combo is en vogue after winning the Stanley Cup last year, McDavid thinks his team is a nice mix and opponents shouldn’t count on them just dumping and chasing the puck.
“We have a good little balance,” he says, of the team’s makeup. “We have some guys that are really good with the puck and can help you with their skill, but we also have a lot of guys that are hard-working and will outwork you. And we’ve got a lot of guys that are just straight up bigger and meaner than everyone else in the league.”
On the ice, McDavid is the definition of composure. And however you feel about the concept of captaincy aside, he seems ready for the increased challenges that a leadership role beckons. He knows that he’ll still be called on to be the standard bearer for the offense as well, so it’s a lot to ask of a kid still shy of his 20th birthday. This isn’t any normal 20-year-old though and Edmonton isn’t just another hockey market. The lights, the pressure and the history, all on McDavid, and he’s ready for it.