Is Connor McDavid good enough to follow in the footsteps of generational superstars like Gretzky, Lemieux, Lindros and Crosby? THN asks the experts.
Connor McDavid provided scouts, fans and NHL GMs with plenty of eureka moments throughout his draft year. But none compared to what he did April 10 in a playoff game against the London Knights. McDavid calmly, casually assaulted the OHL’s most prestigious franchise with five goals, leading his Erie Otters to a 7-3 victory. He wasn’t the first mega prospect to score five in a playoff game, but the way he did it bugged many eyeballs out of many skulls. It was just so…easy for him. He scored on a laser wrister through a self-designed screen. He blew past three Knights on a 1-on-3 rush to create his own breakaway. He picked a defenseman’s pocket and stuffed home a puck in the blink of an eye. He even scored accidentally when a Knight pokechecked the puck into his own goal, for Pete’s sake. The performance carved McDavid once and for all into an echelon above Jack Eichel as the surefire No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft. McDavid, by all accounts, is a generational talent, the most hyped player since Sidney Crosby, following in the footsteps of Eric Lindros, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. But how do we know McDavid’s game will translate into NHL superstardom? What evidence can we glean by looking at prior generational talents? The best expertise comes from those who rubbed shoulders with the greats, so we turned to two of them for help: Hall of Famer and Carolina Hurricanes GM Ron Francis and probable Hall of Famer turned Pittsburgh Penguins player development coach Mark Recchi.
Neither played with Gretzky, but both faced him a lot, and they viewed him as the thinking man’s superstar. Francis described No. 99’s anticipation and awareness as ahead of everyone else’s. Lemieux, a teammate of Francis and Recchi in Pittsburgh, became a generational talent because he had the body of Jean Beliveau with the finesse of Guy Lafleur. “Mario had the size, the skating, the strength both in tight and away from his body, and he was a complete package with no flaws in it,” Francis said. “There weren’t too many guys with his kind of size and strength with that kind of ability to think the game and anticipate the game. Guys at times were climbing on top of him, and he was still able to do the things he wanted to.” Recchi ended up playing with Lindros in Philadelphia and Crosby upon returning to Pittsburgh, so he has perspective on three generational talents. “I had it pretty shitty, didn’t I?” Recchi said with a hearty laugh. Lindros was the dominant physical specimen, Recchi said, and Crosby’s most impressive trait was his pure hockey sense. None of these descriptions, of course, are revelations. These guys are legends. But can players so different from each other provide a hint into what we can expect from McDavid? In other words, did they possess any universal traits we can seek in McDavid? Recchi described the experience of playing with Lemieux, Lindros and Crosby as a presence he felt on the ice right away – a confidence, a determination. He also stressed that they blended their amazing raw skill with a co-operative approach to their teammates. “They did everything, from hockey sense to work ethic, trying to do the right things on offense and the defensive side of the puck and playing the right way,” he said. “It’s a tough dynamic when you’re a superstar. You’ve got to buy into the team game. Sometimes you get put on a pedestal. But these guys bought into the team game.” Gretzky honed his skills with hours on a backyard rink as a kid. Crosby tinkers with his game endlessly, like Tiger Woods does his golf swing. Crosby never stops working on his shot and continues to work on faceoffs. Lindros didn’t get as much attention for doing the same thing, but maybe he would have if he played with the smothering media coverage of today. Recchi implied Lindros was meticulously prepared, too. McDavid is wired the same way. Ex-NHLer Gary Roberts trains him at BioSteel’s summer camp, and the reports are glowing. BioSteel founding partner and trainer Matt Nichol raves about McDavid’s dedication to training and nutrition. “This kid doesn’t just have pro-level skills,” he said. “He has a pro-level approach to his preparation and a pro-level dedication to being the best.” McDavid’s physiology blew away Andrew Hopf, the Owen Sound Attack’s strength and conditioning coach, when Hopf ran the performance testing event at this season’s CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. He said McDavid showed up looking like he’d just rolled out of bed, calm and unassuming, before unleashing magic. “I didn’t even know he was going to score that well, and next thing you know, the guy lights up like an explosion,” Hopf said. “He had holes in his shoes (laughs). I just wanted to give him the shoes off my feet, because it looked like he couldn’t afford ’em.” McDavid’s scores on the testing, which measured things like vertical jump, broad jump and grip strength, suggest he’s on his way to a walk-in closet stacked with new pairs of shoes. Reeboks, of course. Hopf said McDavid showed as well as any of the 40 or so players testing, and that his power numbers rated as NHL-ready. That’s scary considering McDavid is only 6-foot-1 and 187 pounds. It implies he has a massive ceiling and, as Hopf suggested with a nod to Roberts, that McDavid is one well-trained athlete. “It comes down to – his nervous system is just prepared,” Hopf said. “He isn’t fully grown yet. He still has another 15 or 20 pounds of muscle to put on him. Yet he still possesses that instinctual and very organic power, which isn’t natural.” Unnatural in this case means blessed physically. So it seems McDavid shares that gift with the icons who preceded him. For Francis, though, the universal connection between the superstars isn’t about sharing a trait, but sharing the lack of a trait. “When you look at players, most of the time they all have flaws, whether it’s maybe they don’t skate well, maybe they don’t think the game as well, maybe they aren’t as physically big in stature,” he said. “When you get to the guys you’re talking about, they don’t have flaws that bring them down to everybody else’s level. It allows them to be on a different page.” According to scouts so far, McDavid fits that bill. He rates as elite on his brain, hands, speed and shot. He’s lauded for his heart and willingness to take a hit to make a play. He has all the trappings of that elusive generational talent. Francis said McDavid’s speed is NHL-ready and that he couldn’t find a flaw in his game. Recchi, immersed with developing the Penguins’ AHL prospects in W/B-Scranton, admires McDavid from afar. He was blown away by him at the world juniors, given McDavid had returned from a six-week layoff with a broken hand. Recchi sees elements of Lindros’ power and Crosby’s skill and smarts, and he’s convinced McDavid will deliver on the hype. “He’s going to be one of those guys wherever he goes,” Recchi said, a few days before Edmonton won the draft lottery. “He’s going to be fine. And he’s going to take the franchise in a different direction. There’s no question about that.” As Rene Descartes philosophized, there is no such thing as absolute certainty. The evidence McDavid will become an NHL legend is highly circumstantial. But, goodness, there is a lot of evidence, and his loudest supporters are those who played with the best generational talents of the past 30 years. So the young man who wears No. 97 isn’t a sure thing. But let’s call it 99 percent.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin
This feature appears in the 2015 Draft Preview edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.