TORONTO – Connor McDavid has been the talk of Canada's junior national team this week.
How much have people been talking about the precocious 16-year-old who is trying to bull his way onto a team, and into a tournament, traditionally dominated by 19-year-olds? On Friday, a reporter prefaced a question about McDavid to teammate Kerby Rychel by apologizing for asking the question.
"It's OK, he deserves it," Rychel said of the attention coming McDavid's way. "He's an exceptional hockey player. He deserves to be here. He's got tremendous skill. His speed is going to be a big factor on the big ice like this. He's a phenomenal hockey player and we are lucky to have him here now."
It appears McDavid will stay with Canada too, despite initial thoughts that his youth might hold him back. He is going to Europe when the national team departs Sunday for the World Junior Championship, but Canada still needs to cut two forwards and a defenseman. It does not appear that McDavid will be among those hearing bad news from coach Brent Sutter between now and Dec. 26, which is the date of Canada's opening game.
If he makes the team, McDavid will be the first 16-year-old to play for Canada at the World Juniors since Sidney Crosby in 2004.
Sunday afternoon, McDavid proved how special he could be yet again, scoring the first of Canada's three goals in a 3-0 shutout of a select team of college hockey players from the Toronto area. The vast majority of those players were well past their 21st birthday, yet McDavid was one of Canada's most dominant players. His goal came on a sweet release of a cross-ice pass from Rychel.
"He was good tonight," Sutter said, giving as much ground as he has in the fight to keep the expectations surrounding McDavid in check. "He really did a good job."
The eyes of Canada have been on McDavid for the past several years. Last season, he was granted exceptional-player status by Hockey Canada and was able to join the Ontario Hockey League as an under-age player.
In his first season with the Erie Otters, McDavid had 25 goals and 66 points in 62 games. This season, he already has 50 points in 31 games.
Jake Paterson, one of the two Canadian national team goalies, plays for Saginaw in the OHL and has faced McDavid several times already. He hasn't enjoyed any of them.
Sunday afternoon, he much preferred the view as McDavid's teammate.
"He's pretty crazy seeing the age gap from Connor up to the players we were playing against tonight, but I thought he played pretty well and stood out like he always does," Paterson said.
Everybody that has crossed McDavid's path has similar scouting reports, it seems.
Sam Reinhart played with McDavid in the U-18 setup for Canada. Now they have shared the same line for the first two days of selection camp and seem to have bankable chemistry.
Reinhart says virtually anyone on this Canada team could play the flank on McDavid's line.
"The hype is not wrong," Reinhart said." He is a special player. It is definitely easy to play with him. He's just so smart out there as well. There is a skill that he brings, but his hockey sense can't be overlooked. He's always making the right plays in the defensive end and the offensive end. He just has a complete game."
Ah, the defensive end of the game? That has always been the knock on McDavid. Sure, he is a once-in-a-generation talent with the puck. But, can he be serviceable enough without the puck to succeed at the game's highest levels?
McDavid has heard those complaints and taken them to heart. After going minus-24 as an OHL rookie, he is plus-22 this season. Those numbers don't tell the whole story, but they are a view into the defensive improvement McDavid has made through hard work and dedication to that side of his game.
It's paying off with Hockey Canada. Sunday, McDavid was good without the puck and his line gave up virtually no chances. He knows that can only bode well for his chances to make this World Junior team.
"Obviously, a big part of the World Juniors is being able to be put out there at any time and no one can be a liability out there," McDavid said. "If you are a liability in your own zone, you are not going to get put out there. So I think being good both ways is going to help."
So, if McDavid does make the team, what will his role be? He has said he will do anything the coaching staff wants. If they want him to be the 13th forward, he's ready to sign up. If they want him to play the point on the power play, like he did Sunday afternoon, good by him.
"How much of an impact I can have is completely up to me," he said. "I have to make the most of my opportunities and if I can do that I feel like maybe I can play a role in this.
"I want to have fun with this. It's a great opportunity and [you want to] make sure you don't let it slip by without giving it everything you have."
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