Believe the hype: 2015 NHL draft prodigy Connor McDavid is a tank-worthy talent

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Believe the hype: 2015 NHL draft prodigy Connor McDavid is a tank-worthy talent
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PLYMOUTH, Mich. — Steve Ujvari loves the Buffalo Sabres. He remembers The Aud and The French Connection. He rattles off players of the future like Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart. And whenever the Sabres score these days, he yells at the television.

“Nooooo!”

He knows every goal hurts the Sabres’ chances of finishing last in the NHL, and so every goal hurts their chances of drafting Connor McDavid.

Yes, the last-place team will have only a 20-percent chance of drawing the No. 1 overall pick in the draft lottery, which means, at best, it will still have an 80-percent chance of not drafting McDavid. But those are the best odds available, and McDavid is supposed to be the best player available in a long time, and hope is a powerful thing.

McDavid has been a dominant force in both the OHL and the 2015 World Junior Championship. (Getty)
McDavid has been a dominant force in both the OHL and the 2015 World Junior Championship. (Getty)

Ujvari wanted to see for himself. The 46-year-old Buffalo native dug in his closet, found an old Robyn Regehr sweater and replaced the name and number with “McDAVID” and “97.” He drove from his home in Cleveland to suburban Detroit, where the Erie Otters played the Plymouth Whalers on Saturday night on the final weekend of the Ontario Hockey League regular season.

First shift, McDavid took the puck behind the Erie net. He skated up the right wing straight at two defenders. He weaved through them, darted past two more and broke in alone for a scoring chance. The puck didn’t go in, but the goal judge lit the red light. It was hard to blame him.

McDavid stripped an opponent on a backcheck and did a 180 for a breakaway. He took a pass at the red line at half speed, then accelerated smoothly around a defender for another scoring chance.

That was just the first period. In the second, he forced a turnover, created a 2-on-0 and fed Dylan Strome for a goal. He took a pass flying up the left wing, skated around a defender and scored. He stripped another opponent. He protected the puck along the end boards, using his 6-foot-1 frame and slippery stickhandling.

“He’s impressed me every shift he’s been on the ice, he really has,” said Ujvari during the second intermission. “I know the big joke in Buffalo is, ‘Tank for Connor.’ He looks like he’d be worth it.”

And if the Sabres don’t get him?

“If the Sabres don’t get him,” Ujvari said, “it’s going to hurt.”

* * * * *

If you’ve seen McDavid live, you know. If you haven’t – if you’ve just seen him on television or caught some highlights or heard his name as analysts have touted The Next Big Thing – know this:

The hype is legit.

McDavid finished third in the OHL in scoring with 44 goals and 120 points, nine points behind Strome, another top prospect. He did so even though he played only 47 games, 21 fewer than Strome. He averaged 2.55 points per game. The kid turned 18 on Jan. 13.

After suffering a broken hand in a fight Nov. 11, he didn’t play until the World Junior Championship. He tied for the tournament lead with 11 points – with teammates Reinhart and Nicolas Petan – as Canada won gold. Then he returned to Erie and put up 69 points in 29 games before sitting out the regular-season finale Sunday.

Sabres fan Steve Ujvari says the team's last-place finish is worth it if Buffalo ends up with McDavid.
Sabres fan Steve Ujvari says the team's last-place finish is worth it if Buffalo ends up with McDavid.

Humble, soft-spoken, he won’t say much more than that he wants to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft – who wouldn’t? – and he watches the NHL a little more closely now. But listen to Otters coach Kris Knoblauch when asked how McDavid keeps himself challenged in the OHL:

“He wants to be the best,” Knoblauch said. “Maybe he’s the best right now. But he also wants to make sure he’s the best rookie next year in the NHL. He wants to be an MVP in the National Hockey League in whatever it is, two or three years, when he’s in the league. He wants to win a scoring title in the NHL. If he just quit right now in getting better, those things wouldn’t happen.”

What jumps out immediately is McDavid’s skating. He isn’t just fast. He’s effortlessly fast, and he can stop and change direction like a player in a video game. Then there are his hands and hockey sense. He can handle the puck, process the action and think ahead of everyone else on the ice.

“I don’t want to tip you off to what we do, because playoffs are coming up,” said Otters assistant coach Jay McKee. “But we do design certain plays, certain breakouts, around getting him the puck, because he has the ability, unlike anybody else, to get through basically a whole team. His speed is so far ahead at this level, it’s hard for guys. Unless they take a penalty on him, it’s hard to stop him.”

“A defender can have a good angle on him, play it textbook and still come up empty-handed,” Knoblauch said. “That’s just how good he is.”

He can be too good, in a sense. If anything, the coaches get on him to shoot. He’s so good at driving through and around defenders, so good at finding openings and setting up plays, he won’t settle for shots from the top of the circles or the wing when others would be putting the puck on net – generating deflections and rebounds, forcing goaltenders to make saves.

“He needs another element to his game,” Knoblauch said. “He can shoot the puck, but he’s reluctant to do it. He will do it, but because he’s so dangerous other ways, why would you be giving up the puck when something else might be better?”

The OHL is not the NHL. Teenagers are not men, let alone the best men in the world. Soon the competition will be bigger, faster, smarter, more experienced.

“Whether or not I’m fortunate enough to make the jump next year or whenever, it’ll be a learning experience,” McDavid said. “There will be some growing pains for sure. That’s expected.”

But beware.

“I think early on he may surprise guys, because his speed is still higher than a lot of NHLers … speed, the acceleration, the way he can turn on a dime,” said McKee, a former first-round pick of the Sabres who played defense in the NHL for 14 seasons. “Everyone’s heard his name. Everyone knows he’s a good player. But until you’re out there and you see it at that level …”

Pause.

“I think he’s going to surprise some guys.”

* * * * *

Most of us dream of winning a lottery prize. McDavid is a lottery prize.

McKee played for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009-10, and he compares the attention McDavid has received since world juniors to the attention Sidney Crosby received after scoring the golden goal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

McDavid has drawn crowds across the OHL. When the Otters have played in Canada, they have gotten out of control. The Otters can’t let McDavid sign autographs all night when the team has to bus hours to another city for another game the next day, and some fans don’t understand that.

McDavid stands out for his skill level and smarts, while staying humble amid the draft hype frenzy. (AP)
McDavid stands out for his skill level and smarts, while staying humble amid the draft hype frenzy. (AP)

“There’s times when, I mean, we’ve had to bring extra security,” McKee said.

Ujvari isn’t the first grown man to wear the teenager’s name on the back of an NHL jersey. There have been several “McDAVID” Sabres sweaters spotted at different arenas. There has been at least one “McDAVID” Toronto Maple Leafs sweater.

That’s a lot for a kid to handle. But McDavid knows how to handle it.

“It’s very nice, obviously,” McDavid said. “But at the same time, it’s kind of funny. I’ve just got to enjoy it.”

McDavid has been dealing with attention for years already. He can escape to relative anonymity in Erie, where he can go to the mall without being recognized, where he can be just another student in school.

Despite missing classes because of hockey – despite knowing he will soon be a millionaire NHLer – he has a 3.86 grade-point average. He won the Bobby Smith Trophy as the OHL Scholastic Player of the Year in 2013-14. He wants to win it again.

He wants to be the best.

He isn’t a glory hog, though. He captains the Otters. He stands with a pile of pucks during one warm-up drill, feeding each of his teammates before taking the last puck himself.

One night, the Otters were ahead by a goal late in the third period. McDavid made a great move to avoid a defender at the offensive blue line, and he and teammate Remi Elie broke in on an empty net. McDavid passed to Elie and put his stick in the air. Elie looked to pass back to McDavid, but McDavid wouldn’t put down his stick. Elie kept looking, looking, looking …

“We’re like, ‘OK, somebody’s got to shoot here,’ ” McKee said. “He got about a foot away from the net.”

McDavid still wouldn’t put down his stick. Elie had no choice but to take the empty-netter himself.

“That really sticks out in my mind,” McKee said. “For all the amazing things he’s done on the ice and beating guys this year, that right there says a lot.”

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