It’s not rare that Connor McDavid does something his coach had never thought of before.
On Wednesday night at First Niagara Center, for example, McDavid received the puck on a shorthanded break late in the first period with only one man to beat. That man was Niagara IceDogs defenseman Vince Dunn, who managed to keep pace with McDavid down the ice and towards the net. McDavid tried to take him wide, but realized he couldn’t shake him.
As he neared the net, however, he noticed Dunn lunging forward, so McDavid took a hard step. Dunn was forced to commit, and, with the defender stuck, McDavid quickly cut back and slipped the puck between Dunn’s legs to create a shot for himself directly in front of the net.
The shot went wide, but the impression was undeniable: Dunn was victimized, McDavid’s skill was verified, and 11,391 fans that came to catch a glimpse of the world’s best hockey prospect were instantly validated.
“He’ll do all kinds of things that really impress you,” Otters coach Kris Knoblauch said afterwards. “Whether it’s a game or practice, he usually, once a night or more, does something where it’s like, ‘I never thought of that,’ or ‘didn’t see that coming.’”
McDavid’s missed shot wasn’t his only dazzling moment in Erie’s 8-4 victory over Niagara. The 17-year-old tallied three assists in the first period, finishing with four points after scoring a goal off of a rebound in the third period.
His teammates impressed, too. Alex DeBrincat and Kurtis MacDermid contributed two goals each for Erie, and linemate Nick Betz contributed a McDavid-esque assist after receiving the puck from him on the Otters’ second goal.
But the fans came to see McDavid, who is unanimously projected to be the number one overall pick in a deep 2015 NHL Draft class. And on the grand stage, he didn’t disappoint. Aside from his own spectacular plays, McDavid was effective in seemingly every aspect of the game, from his presence on the penalty kill to clearing space for teammates to earn offensive opportunities of their own.
“You see guys like DeBrincat, who is a rookie and I think he’s leading the league in goals right now, he’s getting top-end goals because Connor demands so much attention out there that they’ll try to get two guys on him and it leads Alex open out there,” Otters assistant coach and former Sabres defenseman Jay McKee said. “I think his linemates are certainly happy to be on his line.”
McKee spent 10 seasons in Buffalo and played 14 years in the NHL, defending superstars like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux along the way. As a coach, the former Sabre tries to prepare McDavid for his NHL future by advising him on how defenders might try to adjust as he’s attacking.
“I think one of the benefits of myself being there, being a defenseman, is to kind of relay to Connor how things might be a little bit different at the next level,” he said. “When we’re on the road especially, he’s getting matched up with the top defensive pairings, and that’s natural. For myself, there are some things I can tell him to work on, things that guys do on the penalty kill differently, the way that players in the next level will play on one-on-one rushes, stuff like that.”
Whether or not McDavid can perform the same way he did tonight on one-on-one rushes at the next level remains to be seen, but it will likely be found out sooner rather than later. Once he’s drafted next year, many expect him to make an instant impact on an NHL roster.
One potential landing spot is here in Buffalo, where McDavid spent time leading up to the game. He attended the Buffalo Bills contest with the New England Patriots two Sundays ago, an experience he says exposed him to the energy of the Buffalo sports fans.
“The Pats are pretty hated there,” he joked. “If I was wearing something that said ‘Pats’ on it, I wouldn’t be able to show my face.”
Surely, the crowd that showed up to watch him on Wednesday reinforced that perception.
And whether it was the positive reaction from the fans or his success on the First Niagara Center ice, McDavid wasn’t coy when asked about someday playing in Buffalo after the game.
“I don’t really know what’s going to happen with the whole draft process and everything,” he said. “But if I am fortunate enough to be able to play in the city of Buffalo and for the Sabres, then obviously that would be a tremendous honor.”