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Round 1

Connor McDavid true leading man for Oilers

Captain, NHL scoring champion is face of Western Conference entering playoffs

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

EDMONTON -- After 127 NHL games, consider the torch passed to Connor McDavid.

The 20-year-old Edmonton Oilers center is the new face of the game in the Western Conference.

The threshold is high for such a role, previously occupied by some of the game's finest; Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Lanny McDonald and Teemu Selanne should top any lists.

Headed for his first taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in his second season, beginning against the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference First Round at Rogers Place on Wednesday (10 p.m. ET; Sportsnet, TVA Sports, USA), McDavid is already bidding for hardware that would validate any argument that he could be the face of the game. Everywhere.

After his rookie NHL season was interrupted by a broken collarbone that sidelined him for 37 games, McDavid began 2016-17 at warp speed.

He scored six points in his first two games and was always in or near the lead for the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL scoring leader, an award he won by finishing with 100 points (30 goals, League-leading 70 assists).


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The way he raced to that scoring title, and the fact that the Oilers improved by 33 points this season, are also why he's a serious contender for the Hart Trophy as the League's most valuable player.

McDavid never went more than two games without a point and had 30 multipoint games this season.

And as races heated up in the season's second half, both for the scoring title and for a playoff berth, McDavid finished with a 14-game point streak (seven goals, 18 assists, 25 points).

In terms of the skill, McDavid has been consistently creating highlights and scaring the wits out of opponents, especially defensemen who see him get up to full throttle in two or three strides.

"You hope you're not the guy going against him," Oilers defenseman Kris Russell said. "He can make plays at a speed that I don't know if anyone in the League can make. You see some fast skaters in this League, don't get me wrong. But his hands, his mental capacity to make plays, it's just as quick. That's what separates him."

The No. 1 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft instantly showed not only that he had elite abilities in the NHL, but that he was a leader at a young age.

The Oilers made McDavid, then 19, the youngest captain in NHL history on Oct. 5, 2016.

"He's a team-first guy," forward Matt Hendricks said. "That's been one of the aspects of our game that's really taken off. We have this young all-star of a player but he's come in and focused on the team game, not getting his points.

"That's definitely, in my opinion, the No. 1 area where we've improved."

Video: EDM@SJS: McDavid pots rebound for 30th goal of season

Goaltender Cam Talbot said that in the NHL, there are elite players and there are leaders, and that they're not always the same people.

"I think skillwise, he came in already at the top of his game," Talbot said. "As an 18-year-old. That caught my eye, just how skilled he was, how smart he was with the puck and without the puck. I think that's what separates the greats from everyone else, just how smart they are without the puck, that they always seem to know where to be. And that's why the puck seems to find them.

"And now this year from the start, it's his leadership role in the room. Everyone kind of questioned whether he was ready to be a captain and I think he kind of put that to bed pretty early. He's been our unquestioned leader in this room since the start of the year. We go as he goes right now."

Oilers coach Todd McLellan said there has been no great evolution of McDavid's character or behavior as captain.

"This is going to sound strange but it's not dramatically different from the beginning of the year," McLellan said. "That is how confident we were that he could be the guy to lead this group. Maybe more importantly, how confident we were with the group around him and the support he was going to get.

"I can't tell you he's really grabbed the team and he's the motivator in the locker room, anything like that. His demeanor has stayed quite similar from Day One to whatever day we're at. To me that's a good sign. It tells me he was ready at the beginning of the year and it tells me he doesn't get out of character as the season wears on."

Rather than seeing it as out of character, many have seen McDavid's character start to come out. He is naturally reserved and measured, preferring to use an economy of words. But at the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles, McDavid seemed relaxed, more open and like he was enjoying the entire affair.

Another outburst of personality came early during a game against the Sharks on March 30. McDavid set up Patrick Maroon for the Oilers' first goal, and when they met to celebrate behind the San Jose net, the captain looked his much bigger linemate in the eye, grabbed him by the helmet straps and started shaking as he let out a joyful howl.

McDavid laughed out loud when asked about it after the game.

"He didn't seem to get excited over that one," McDavid said. "That was a big goal for our team and I wanted to make sure he was awake and showed a little bit more of a pulse than he did. He normally is [a good celebrator]. For some reason he looked a little sleepy so I was trying to wake him up quick."

Another elite play. Another dose of leadership. A firmer grip on the torch.

Video: NHL Tonight on Connor McDavid's sophomore success

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