ERIE, Pa. — Other kids Connor McDavid’s age would be ecstatic to get a Sidney Crosby jersey. The lucky ones might even get an autograph from the NHL superstar.
McDavid gets compliments.
The 15-year-old is next in hockey’s line of phenoms, a short list that includes Crosby himself. McDavid is living up to the “exceptional player” status granted by the Ontario Hockey League, shining for the Erie Otters as an underage rookie.
“He looks like he’s got it all,” Crosby told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “When I watched him play, he reminded me of myself.”
McDavid, a Toronto native, has done a lot already this season, including a league-high points streak of 15 games, but receiving praise from his hockey idol tops his list of accomplishments.
“That was pretty amazing,” McDavid said over the weekend. “For him to say something like that meant the world to me.”
It’s easy to see why the Penguins’ captain would notice shades of himself in McDavid. The center is a slick-passing, goal-scoring, hard-working player who has an uncommon view of the game.
“He has hockey sense, and he has vision, and he just knows what’s happening before other people know what’s going to happen,” Erie coach Robbie Ftorek said. “That’s what really great hockey players have. That’s what makes him different.”
McDavid is just the third person to earn the OHL’s “exceptional player” designation, joining New York Islanders center John Tavares (2005) and Sun County defenseman Aaron Ekblad (2011). The age range for junior hockey in Canada is 16 to 20, but McDavid went through an application and interview process to show that staying in his peer group would slow his development.
“I’ve played with kids a year older my whole life, since I’ve been 4 pretty much,” said McDavid, who had 33 goals and 72 points in 32 games for a Toronto midget team last season. “Obviously, now it’s a pretty big step up playing against some guys that are 20, but I’m getting used to it.”
It didn’t take long for McDavid to show he belonged. After getting blanked in his debut, he recorded points in 15 straight games. He scored in 23 of his 26 outings, totaling 14 goals and 32 points.
“I can still play a whole lot better even though I am getting a couple points,” McDavid said. “I had no idea what to expect. It was a summer of just waiting and wondering. It’s good to get it started and get a sense of what was going on. It’s been a blast so far.”
The 5-foot-11, 170-pounder ranks 21st in scoring. Only two rookies cracked the top 20 during the last three seasons, with Sarnia’s Nail Yakupov (fourth) and Alex Galchenyuk (20th) accomplishing the feat two years ago. Yakupov went first overall in this year’s NHL draft, while Galchenyuk went third.
McDavid is likely to reclaim a spot in the OHL’s top 20 because he does everything for the Otters, who went 10-52-6 last season to earn the right to select McDavid first in the OHL draft. During a 4-2 loss to Kitchener on Saturday that dropped Erie to 7-15-4, McDavid centered the first line and played on the top unit during power plays and penalty kills.
“That’s what you want your rookie season,” McDavid said. “You just want to play. You look at guys who are on winning teams and they’re not playing. They’re fighting to even dress in games. That’s not what I want at all. I want to play. Sure, we’re losing some games, but I think we’re a lot better than our record shows. We’re in almost every game.”
McDavid’s skills are evident whenever he’s on the ice, including warm-ups. While teammates waited for a goaltender swap Saturday, McDavid rapidly stickhandled between pucks as part of his pregame outing. During the game, he repeatedly showed his quick cuts, stops and starts, was impossible to knock down and was a tenacious penalty-killer.
He also assisted on a goal by linemate J.P. Labardo, who is having a career season on McDavid’s left wing with eight goals and 22 points in 25 games. The 20-year-old had eight goals and 19 points in 50 games last year.
McDavid’s poise on the ice is mirrored by his mature attitude off it. The OHL has turned down underage applicants who showed their youth, but McDavid acts much older than 15. It’s helped him live up to the hype.
“I guess it’s the way I was brought up,” McDavid said. “My dad always gave me some great advice, and the same with my mom. They taught me really well.
“It’s nice to have some attention, but at the same time it’s been pretty crazy and a bit of a whirlwind. … When it comes to on-ice stuff, it’s just hockey.”