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McDavid impressive if not spectacular in NHL debut

by Dan Rosen

ST. LOUIS -- Good but not great, with flashes of the brilliance that's to come, warning signs of areas that need improvement, and a slow and steady rise in his level of impact.

That description of Connor McDavid's performance in his NHL debut Thursday at Scottrade Center against the St. Louis Blues might not be what people envisioned hearing or reading considering the hype that accompanied the Edmonton Oilers rookie center into the League, but honest evaluation is the first and necessary step for McDavid toward living up to the incredibly high expectations already placed on him.

He may only be cracking the surface of his potential in the NHL, but he at least deserves time to lay his foundation, especially when he's attempting to do it with a target on his back as the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft and arguably the most hyped player to enter the League since Sidney Crosby a decade ago.

"I thought he held his own," Oilers left wing Taylor Hall said following St. Louis' 3-1 win in the season opener for each team. "When you're 18 years old, you're playing against guys sometimes twice your age and not every play, not every game, is going to be easy. Tonight was no different, but I think you saw a lot of pushback from him and that's great to see."

McDavid's stat line was less than impressive, reading 18:25 of ice time in 22 shifts, a minus-1 rating, two shots on goal, which were his only two attempts at the net, and a 3-10 record in faceoffs.

"I did some good stuff, did some bad stuff," McDavid said.

He's right, and there's nothing wrong with that, especially because the good stuff was close to sensational.

For instance, there was the sequence early in the third period, when McDavid flashed his speed, which will be his trademark once he feels his way into his NHL career, by blowing past Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester and dancing around defenseman Alex Pietrangelo to get a quality shot on goal, the first of his career, that goalie Brian Elliott turned aside at 1:53.

"That McDavid's going to be a good player," Pietrangelo said. "He's a special talent. Pretty impressed."

Just 73 seconds after nearly making Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo part of his first highlight-reel goal, McDavid almost scored again. He smartly darted back to the slot after moving into the left circle during an Oilers power play, got the puck and made a spinning move to get a shot on goal that required Elliott to stretch out his arms to make the save.

"I had a couple chances that I need to score on," McDavid said.

He had a few plays in the first period that didn't quite develop into chances, but they were close.

McDavid was inches from forcing two turnovers of his first two shifts of the game that would have led to breakaways with his speed. He also tried at one point to use that speed to split Blues defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Carl Gunnarsson. Unlike last season, when he dominated the Ontario Hockey League with 120 points in 47 games, he couldn't squeeze through them entirely, but he still allowed the Oilers to get the puck in the offensive zone.

"He knows he can do, and we know he can do it; it's figuring out when and how and against who," Oilers coach Todd McLellan said. "There were moments tonight where I'm sure he would've pulled away from junior players, and tonight they're strong enough that when he is pulling away, they're tugging him and pulling him back. That's all experience."

The same can be said for McDavid at the faceoff dots. Experience will be a factor there, as it is for every young center in the NHL, including Crosby, who won 45.5 percent of his faceoffs in his rookie season and didn't clear the 50 percent hurdle until his third season.

McDavid lost his first six faceoffs, and they weren't even close. He lost them all cleanly and got zero help from his wings. But he won three of his next seven.

It's still not good enough and it's an incredibly small sample size, but it was telling of his night. He got better and he looked more comfortable as the game went along.

"I thought his best period was his third," McLellan said. "He was dangerous coming through. I think if you lose your composure or lose your focus, that tends to be your worst period, so it says a lot about him as a young player. He could stick with it. When we needed him to be an offensive threat, he was. He almost scored there in the third."

Perhaps it was what McDavid didn't do that made the biggest impact on his teammates and coach. He didn't get caught napping in the neutral zone, cherry-picking at the far blue line, or burned in the defensive zone. His minus-1 was the result of an empty-net goal.

Though he had but a few flashes of brilliance with the puck, he had a steady, consistent game without it. For an 18-year-old offensive player making his NHL debut, that isn't a small thing.

"He's not thinking, 'I've got to get 120 points to prove I am who I am,'" Oilers forward Matt Hendricks said. "He's trying to play the game to win a hockey game as a team. I see a guy who's coming back. He's not cheating. The puck is not in McDavid's net all night. The best players in the League play that way, and they end up winning Cups."

McDavid might one day do that with the Oilers. The expectation is that he will. For now, he needs time to get to know who he is and what he can be in the NHL. He deserves it. Everyone does, especially at 18 years old.

"We're not going to put ridiculous pressure and expectations [on McDavid]," center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. "We just want him to feel like he's one of the guys, and he is one of the guys."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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