NEWARK, N.J. — Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan has seen his share of fast skaters and skilled players come and go in more than two decades of coaching hockey. He’s watched players with elite skills flame out as quickly as they came in.
“Paul MacLean used to call them ‘Morning Glory,’” McLellan said, referencing the current Anaheim Ducks assistant coach. “You’d watch these guys in the morning, and you’d think ‘Wow,’ and then you’d watch them at night, and you didn’t even know they’d played.”
Skill is essential for most hockey players’ success, but creativity, confidence and poise are what separate the elite from the good.
And McLellan sees the whole package in Connor McDavid.
“You can have the speed and the skill, but you have to have the brain to match it,” McLellan said. “Connor has the mind to match the skill set. He has a brilliant mind to go along with his brilliant skill set.”
McDavid has been a household name in Canada for years thanks to his highly decorated junior career with the Erie Otters. After being taken No. 1 overall in the 2015 draft in June, he was making inroads into the United States sports stratosphere thanks to a dominant first month in which he posted 12 points in 12 games and was named the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for October.
But a broken collarbone in Edmonton’s Nov. 3 win against the Philadelphia Flyers cost McDavid 37 games and stunted some of that momentum.
His return to the ice last week both excited and frustrated hockey fans—both in Edmonton and across the sport’s landscape—leaving them in awe of the teenager’s incredible ability but also wondering what could’ve been for his rookie season.
“I feel pretty good,” McDavid said. “I’m just trying to feel better each and every game. I think that’s been happening.”
Despite the injury, McDavid hasn’t disappointed when he’s been on the ice, posting 19 points in his first 18 NHL games and ranking fifth in the league in points per game (1.06) this season.
McDavid has dealt with injury layoffs before, missing almost six weeks last year after breaking his hand in a fight in the Ontario Hockey League, but he admitted (via Oilers TV) it was still frustrating sitting out such a substantial portion of his rookie NHL campaign.
However, it could have been devastating if not for one of McDavid’s roommates—who knows a thing or two about being a highly touted former No. 1 pick.
“You kind of adjust to the lifestyle and adjust to the pressures, and I think that’s why it’s been good with Connor and I,” said Taylor Hall, McDavid’s roommate, who also was the first overall pick in the 2010 draft. “I’ve been able to teach him a couple of things. Coming to a new city, there’s a lot of adjusting to do—bills to pay, apartments to take care of—so I think it’s been a lot easier for him just moving in and not having to worry about any of that stuff.”
Young athletes moving in with older, more experienced ones has been a popular trend, as it helps ease the rookie’s transition into the NHL. The Florida Panthers trusted 2014's No. 1 overall pick Aaron Ekblad with Willie Mitchell and his wife Megan last year. Hall lived with Edmonton’s 2008 first-round pick Jordan Eberle early on, and even Sidney Crosby spent five years living with former Pittsburgh Penguins great Mario Lemieux.
Taking in McDavid is just part of Hall’s maturation process, too.
“I think Taylor showed very good leadership skills inviting him into his world and sharing his experience as a No. 1 overall pick coming out of junior,” McLellan said. “I know away from the rink he’s been able to help manage him—food, nutrition, rest.”
Hall has spent his career in Edmonton and is accustomed to the cold, dark Alberta winters. The Oilers haven’t made the playoffs since 2006—when they stunned three better-seeded Western Conference teams before falling to the Carolina Hurricanes in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Final. With 2015-16 likely to serve as Edmonton’s 10th straight playoff-less campaign, finding relief from the fans and press is difficult but essential.
“We both love the game. We both love to watch hockey, but certainly you try to get away from it,” Hall said. “Edmonton can be a little bit of a fishbowl. It’s tougher to get away. It’s always on TV. It’s always in your face, but we enjoy it.”
It hasn’t always been this way in Alberta’s capital city. Edmonton is dubbed “The City of Champions,” and the Oilers helped create that winning culture during the 1980s. Led by names like Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri, the Oilers reached the Stanley Cup Final six times in an eight-year stretch—claiming five titles in that span.
But the Oilers have won just nine playoff series since they last celebrated a Cup in 1990 and are on pace to finish last in their division for the fifth time in the last seven seasons. Such failings have led to good draft picks, and with a young, dynamic crop of forwards—with McDavid leading the collection—the Oilers could be building a new dynasty.
With so much invested and this year all but lost, the Oilers waited to make sure McDavid was 100 percent before allowing him to play in a game. With his upper-body injury, McDavid was able to skate and do conditioning drills in December but was cleared to return just last week.
Since returning, McDavid has still made opposing defenses look foolish, posting seven points in five games—five of which came in a pair of wins in his first two games back.
But Edmonton’s victories came against the Blue Jackets and Senators—two teams currently tied for last in the league in goals against. In their subsequent contests, against more structured squads, the Oilers were outscored 15-3 in three straight defeats. In those games, McLellan found Edmonton deferring too much to its 19-year-old budding superstar center.
“Connor’s return affected us a couple of ways,” McLellan said. ”I think it really gave us a boost, and then I think it’s hurt us a little bit because we have had the tendency to just stand back and watch him.
“Over the last couple of games, we’ve witnessed that one man—especially a 19-year-old young man—can’t carry a team. The group can’t stand back and just wait for him to do it.”
Even in defeat, McDavid wowed road crowds; arguably his most impressive play was one in which he didn’t score Saturday in Montreal. While his skill, speed and mind are clearly ahead of other players', McDavid’s defensive game isn’t lacking, either. Twice since returning, McDavid has picked an opposing defenseman’s pocket and created a breakaway for himself.
“I think defensively in his own end, he’s surprised a lot of people with how well he’s adapted,” Hall said. “It’s definitely not easy being a 19-year-old centerman in the NHL, playing against the best players in the world every night. I think he’s handled himself well there.”
Although he’s offered hockey fans a small glimpse into what the next decade-plus will look like, McDavid is still a fresh-faced boy wonder in a man’s game. The best is yet to come.
“We’ve also seen that he is a 19-year-old,” McLellan said. “He is still developing physically. There are shifts that are taxing on him, and yet he can still wow the fans every now and then.”
Pat Pickens has covered the NHL since 2012. His work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and NHL.com. Follow him on Twitter @Pat_Pickens.