EDMONTON, AB - It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to those close to Connor McDavid that his teammates have lauded his leadership in his rookie season.
Before being selected by the Oilers first overall in the 2015 NHL Draft, McDavid captained the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters for his final junior season. He has worn the “A” as alternate captain as well, both for Canada at the 2015 World Junior Championship, and back in Midget AAA for the Toronto Marlboros.
On the ice, he’s a driver and a catalyst, as he showed the Oilers in his first NHL season.
“I think, on the ice, he does everything the right way,” said Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot. “He doesn’t take shortcuts, he’s always the first one up the ice, first guy back on the backcheck. He leads by example on and off the ice, just the way he carries himself. There’s different ways that you can lead and it doesn’t always have to be vocal and Connor is just one of those guys who leads by example and that’s a guy you can follow.”
One by one, Oilers players met with the media as locker clean-out day commenced for the final time at Rexall Place. One by one, those same players spoke highly of McDavid’s rookie season and the leadership he showed.
“I think on the ice he was everything and more,” said Oilers winger Taylor Hall, who hosted the rookie in his Edmonton home. “By the end of the year, he was our leader on the ice and I think with all the expectations that are on him, the way he conducts himself off the ice and the kind of kid he is I think it’s been a lot of fun to be around him.”
Jordan Eberle enjoyed success on the rookie’s wing this season, finishing second on the team in goals with 25 in 69 games. Eberle had a passenger seat beside McDavid for much of the rookie’s 48-point injury-shortened 45-game season.
“I’ve said it from the beginning, he’s going to be an elite player in this league,” said Eberle. “It’s scary that he’s only 19 and only going to get better, but what’s impressive is how he went down and rehabbed and came back and actually continued to play well.”
McDavid missed 37 games with a broken clavicle but when he returned became more of a catalyst for the group, hardly missing a beat.
One of the things players really spoke highly of with McDavid is how he handled himself off the ice. Points aside, McDavid had a lot of internal and external expectations on himself and was able to navigate through the season under the many watchful eyes of the fans and media.
“He came in and he was just one of the guys right away,” said Oilers centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “He was, obviously, just a young kid coming in and it’s definitely a whirlwind for him but he handled everything real well. He doesn’t treat anybody any different, he doesn’t act as good as he is. That’s definitely a great thing for him.”
“He didn’t make any noise in terms of all the autographs he had to sign when we go on the road and all the people that wanted to see him,” said Oilers veteran Matt Hendricks. “He was very business-like, took care of it and moved on to the group and wanted to be a part of it. I think Connor has a lot of attributes, in terms of his playing ability, but I see him as a very good leader as well.”
Hendricks is one of many who thinks McDavid exhibits the characteristics of a player who could wear a letter at the NHL level.
“Absolutely. Absolutely, he could be,” said Hendricks, who doesn’t know when the 19-year-old should be expected to take on that role.
“That’s not a question for me, but you’ve seen players at his age wear the ‘C’ after their first year or so, but I have no doubt in my mind he’d excel at it.”
Part of being a leader isn’t standing in the middle of the room and giving speeches. It’s about being able to lead in a way that your teammates will want to follow. That’s something McDavid naturally tries to do when he steps on the ice.
“I’m definitely not the loudest guy in the room, but I definitely felt more and more comfortable as the year wore on and I think I’m someone who tries to lead more by example and on the ice,” said McDavid. “Our team is very lucky in the fact that we do have a lot of good leaders and a lot of young leaders. It was good to feel more comfortable as the year went on.”
When he hears a teammate, like Hall, voice his respect and admiration for his leadership, McDavid is appreciative.
“That’s a huge honour to hear that and have him say that,” said McDavid. “(Hall is) definitely someone I look up to and respect so much. For him to say something like that means a lot to me. I think that’s something I aim to do. I’m not the loudest guy in the room or on the bench, but I try and do whatever leading I do on the ice.”
Another leadership characteristic McDavid exudes is his overall attitude and approach. Not comfortable with the status of the team in the standings, the rookie is open about his disdain for losing.
“It eats me alive,” he said. “I think if it doesn’t then you shouldn’t really be here. I know losing is something that’s happened a lot here in Edmonton for a while now and I think it just gets to a point where you have to just be so sick of losing that you can’t do it anymore. I think a lot of guys are definitely at that point. I’m a guy who definitely doesn’t handle losing well so this year has definitely been hard on me, but I definitely hope that’s something we can change next year.”
On a separate, but relevant note, Oilers President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Peter Chiarelli says the team’s captaincy picture will likely be more clear next year. This season, the Oilers opted to dish out multiple alternate captain nods, but no distinct captain. This coming season, the Oilers are likely to have someone wear the “C” when they take the ice at Rogers Place in the fall.
“Yeah, I would say so, that we’ll have a captain next year,” said Chiarelli.