BUFFALO, N.Y. - The most talked-about hockey player in Buffalo, home of the Sabres, is a 17-year-old phenom who hasn't even been drafted yet.
At 6-foot-1 and 187 pounds, Connor McDavid plays for the Erie Otters, a 90-minute drive from Buffalo in Erie, Pennsylvania. That hasn't stopped Buffalo fans from dreaming of what might be. It's not unusual to spot fans wearing Sabres' jerseys with McDavid's name stitched on the back, and more than 11,000 people turned up to watch the Otters play the Niagara IceDogs in an Ontario Hockey League game at the Sabres' home arena last week.
"It's pretty weird to think about," McDavid said. "Whenever the Sabres lose, my Twitter just kind of blows up. I really can't explain it. It's pretty cool."
McDavid and U.S.-born Jack Eichel, a freshman centre at Boston University, are projected to be the top two picks in the draft in June. Win-starved Sabres fans know that that the lower Buffalo finishes in the standings, the better the team's chances are at landing the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft lottery. They were 2-8-1 heading into the weekend.
Otters assistant coach Jay McKee can easily explain the buzz by calling the skilled and speedy McDavid "a generational player."
"They should want to get Connor McDavid," said the former NHL defenceman, who played nine-plus seasons in Buffalo. "It's not every year in the draft that you can find a guy like that."
That was evident in Erie's 8-4 win at Buffalo, in which McDavid had a goal and three assists.
Playing behind the opposing net, McDavid has such a burst that he's capable of zipping past defenders and getting a shot off from the slot. His most impressive play didn't result in a goal, but drew an audible gasp from the crowd.
Killing a penalty, McDavid sped up the right wing where he was shadowed by Niagara defenceman Vince Dunn. With one hand on his stick and without missing a step, McDavid slipped the puck through Dunn's legs and wheeled into the middle for a breakaway before being stopped by goalie Brent Moran.
Niagara coach Marty Williamson could only smile and shake his head.
"I've been in the league 11 years, and I don't think I've seen a better player," Williamson.
"It's horrible playing against him, but it's fun to watch him play," Williamson added with a laugh. "It's almost getting to the unfair stage. Get him to the NHL draft and get him out of here."
From suburban Toronto, McDavid started drawing widespread attention in 2011-12. Facing players two and three years old than him, McDavid had 33 goals and 39 assists for 72 points in 33 games for the Toronto Marlboros of the Greater Toronto Hockey League. In Erie, the 2013 OHL rookie of the year has combined for 53 goals, 112 assists for 165 points in 119 games in his first two seasons.
Just this week, McDavid created yet another stir during practice, when his shot hit the post and the puck exploded into pieces.
"We're sitting beside scouts, and they'll say, 'Wow, did you see what he just did?'" Otters owner Sherry Bassin said. "And we say, 'Yeah, we've seen it 50 times.' It's almost like we take it for granted."
He doesn't, of course.
"I've met a lot of players with a lot of ability that I wish had more character, and a lot of players with a lot of character that I wish had more ability," Bassin said. "Put them together, and you get a star. And we've got a few of them. And he's our leader."
The only place McDavid Mania hasn't taken hold is the Sabres' locker room.
"I don't like it at all. I think if people put themselves in my shoes, I don't think they'd like it very much either," forward Patrick Kaleta said. "In reality, we're not doing very good right now. But our focus is what we've got to do. I don't really comment on people talking about players in the upcoming draft."
As good as McDavid is on the ice, he's soft-spoken off it. When asked what it will be like playing at the upcoming World Junior Championships in Toronto and Montreal, McDavid replied that he hasn't yet made the Canadian team yet.
As for the possibility of being drafted by Buffalo, McDavid's fine with that, too.
"Every NHL city and organization is first class," he said. "But if it's Buffalo, that would obviously be a tremendous honour."
McDavid enjoyed playing in an NHL rink, and the perks that came with touring the Sabres facility before boarding a bus for Erie's next game at Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
"That's junior hockey for you," he said, referring to the 12-hour bus ride that lay ahead.
He won't soon forget his game in Buffalo.
"It was a little slice of heaven for us," McDavid said.