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Oilers' McDavid sees hard work pay with NHL debut

by Derek Van Diest

EDMONTON -- Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid may be the most anticipated player to join the NHL in 10 years, but few are as excited about his upcoming debut than he is.

Not since Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby entered the League in 2005 has a player generated as much interest as McDavid, who will play his first regular-season game with the Oilers on Thursday at the St. Louis Blues (8 p.m. ET; SN360).

"It's something that you dream of for so long," McDavid said. "The draft is one thing, but to finally be in this situation is another, so I'm really excited. It's been a long road; it's been a lot of hard work. I think a lot of guys' stories are different in how they get here, but the one common theme is hard work and my story is not any different that way. I put in a lot of hours to be here and I'm looking forward to it. I'm looking forward to it for my family and for them to enjoy it. I know my dad and mom are going to be very proud and it's going to be great experience."

McDavid, 18, has been on the landscape since being granted exceptional-player status by Hockey Canada, allowing him to play in the Ontario Hockey League as a 15-year-old in 2012-13.

Considered a generational talent, Edmonton got the chance to select McDavid with the first pick of the 2015 NHL Draft by winning the NHL Draft Lottery in April.

McDavid's arrival in Edmonton is expected to help turn the fortunes of a fleeting franchise that has failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the past nine seasons.

"You don't want to put too much weight on his shoulders; he's an 18-year-old kid," Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli said. "I don't care how good he is or how good he'll be, it's a lot to shoulder if you're supposed to be the guy and you're the only guy. Fortunately we have a lot of high-pedigree players that are high picks who have gone through similar situations that he's going through. That helps. Anything that we can do to support Connor to make sure he's going to be a contributor to this team we will do. But he doesn't have to be the guy."

The Oilers underwent major changes shortly after winning the lottery, resulting in Chiarelli's arrival as general manager and Todd McLellan's hiring as coach.

The moves were designed to bring stability to a franchise that had gone through three general managers (Kevin Lowe, Steve Tambellini, Craig MacTavish) and six coaches (MacTavish, Pat Quinn, Tom Renney, Ralph Krueger, Dallas Eakins, Todd Nelson) since reaching Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.

"You look at the changes in management this year and the whole new coaching staff, it's almost like a brand-new organization," McDavid said. "There is a lot of stuff to be said about that. I think the fact that there is such a good core group here that is young is good. We definitely like being around each other and want to win for each other. I haven't played a game here yet but I can't imagine how it's been for someone like Taylor [Hall], who has been here for five years and never even come close to making the playoffs. I know everyone wants to win for guys like that."

McDavid has dominated at every level he's played on his way to the NHL. He had 44 goals and 120 points in 47 games with Erie of the OHL last season. McDavid also led Canada to a gold medal at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship.

He said he's looking forward to the challenge the NHL presents.

"You understand that there is going to be a big jump from junior and that it's going to be hard and there's going to be a lot of differences with what's going on," McDavid said. "But I'm comfortable and I felt like I had a pretty good preseason. That was something that I wanted to do coming into camp, is earn a spot on the team. It's something I've done and I feel pretty good about that and I look forward to what's to come."

McDavid is the type of player who puts more pressure on himself to perform than others do. But even he is realistic with what he will be able to achieve during his rookie season.

While drawing comparisons to Crosby, McDavid will be hard-pressed to match the 39 goals and 102 points Crosby had as a rookie in 2005-06.

"You have to give yourself a break sometimes," McDavid said. "This is the NHL and there is still a feeling-out process that you have to go through and there are going to be highs and lows. You hear Peter and Todd talk about it a lot; there are going to be nights where I'm not going to be a very good player and that's just how it is. You just have to try and limit those nights and do whatever you can to help your team win. Whether that's blocking a shot, staying low and playing low in your own zone and doing things like that, that's the main thing. That's more important, that's what's going to win games, and ultimately that's what I want to do here in Edmonton."

The Oilers are aware of the high expectations on McDavid this season and are trying to temper them.

"That's all I've been doing," Chiarelli said. "It's hard with the hype around him. I really think if you look at players in their first years, you look at John Tavares in his first year (2009-10), what did he have, 54 points? It's a tough League."

Having players on the team that have been in similar situations should help McDavid navigate through his first NHL season with the Oilers.

Hall (2010), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Nail Yakupov (2012) were No. 1 draft picks and entered the League with high expectations and pressure to lift the Oilers back into playoff contention.

"I went through it, but not on his level," Hall said. "There is no doubt about that. He's been through a lot already and he knows how to handle the hype and the pressure. For us, it's about making him comfortable off the ice. It's about making sure he has a vehicle, he has a good place to live, he's well fed and he knows the ins and outs of the city. That's important for a new player coming into a new city. When you think about it, he's got a good blend of older guys and a system that is really going to benefit him. He's got guys around him that are not his age necessarily, but can sure relate to him. And that's important."

McDavid said he's not setting a target for any number of goals or points this season.

"I don't think you can do that," he said. "That's something I've never done and I think it's better that way. You can play your best game and not have a goal or assist or anything like that. It's not just a numbers game; I know that's what a lot of people look at. My dad always talks about my first-ever game in the OHL, I played it in Niagara. I didn't get any points but he still thought I was very good and he always points back to that. I don't think you need points to have a good game."

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