Having to wear a cage instead of a visor is the only drawback to being at the Canadian junior team summer-development camp for young phenom Connor McDavid.
As a player under 18 years old, the 16-year-old McDavid had to wear a full face cage as he skated on a line with another “underage” player, Sam Reinhart, and Phoenix Coyotes first-round draft pick Max Domi at the first day of camp on Sunday.
“Everyone’s wearing a visor, so wearing a cage makes me stick out like a sore thumb, I guess,” the Erie Otters centre said. “It’s a constant reminder that I’m younger, but it’s kind of funny.
“The guys are giving me a couple of jabs here and there, but it’s fun.”
McDavid, the early choice to go first overall in the 2015 NHL draft, has a good chance to be one of the rare 16-year-olds to make Canada’s team at the world junior championship.
It is the first step toward picking the squad that will represent Canada at the world under-20 championship Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Malmo, Sweden.
Coach Brent Sutter put McDavid and Reinhart on the same line to build on the chemistry the youngsters started while leading Canada to a gold medal at the world under-18 championship in Sochi, Russia, last spring. Their linemate then was Morgan Klimchuk, who is not at the summer camp.
“When the lineup sheet came out, we both kind of looked at it and looked at each and said ‘again,’” McDavid said. “It’s kind of nice playing with someone you know, and playing with Domi is pretty easy, so I’m looking forward to it.”
The squad will skate again Monday at the Montreal Canadiens’ practice facility and then head to Lake Placid, N.Y. for exhibition games Wednesday against Finland, Thursday against Sweden and Saturday against the United States.
The team won’t be picked until December, but the camp gives players a chance to get to know each other and get used to the system of play.
McDavid brings a special blend of speed and playmaking ability, and the team brass saw no point in putting him on the under-18 squad that will play at the Ivan Hlinka tournament this week in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Not when he has an excellent chance of cracking the under-20 team roster.
The 17-year-old Reinhart, of the Kootenay Ice, is projected to go high in the 2014 draft and is also highly skilled.
“They’re special players in their own right,” Sutter said. “They’re obviously exceptional players.
“They have as good of a shot as anybody to make this team, and that’s the mindset. We’re not about age, we’re about giving ourselves the best chance to succeed and we’ll try to put together the right team to give ourselves that chance.”
If McDavid makes it, he would join Sidney Crosby, Eric Lindros, Jason Spezza, Jay Bouwmeester and Wayne Gretzky as Canadian 16-year-olds to play at a world junior.
But the Newmarket, Ont., native is used to playing with and against older players.
“You look around and you see guys like Scott Laughton and Morgan Rielly and Tom Wilson – these are all guys that played in the NHL or have legitimate shots of playing in the NHL next year,” he said. “So you look around and say ‘jeez, what am I doing here?’ “But I think I’ve fit in well and I just hope to keep on growing.”
Reinhart was glad to skate with McDavid again.
“I think it’s just really easy to play with him,” Reinhart said. “He’s really smart and in every situation he comes out with the puck, so you just have to be ready for when he passes it over to you.
“It’s still my age group, I just have a late birthday. I think looking at him, he’s used to playing with older guys his whole career. So I don’t think it affects him in any way, and it definitely doesn’t affect me.”
Domi, the son of former NHL tough guy Tie Domi, didn’t mind being put together with the young guns.
“I played with Reinhart a bit at U18s and he’s an awesome player, but Connor, I mean, it’s crazy to think that he’s that much younger than us,” said Domi, a skilled winger for the London Knights. “It’s unbelievable out there.
“We were teasing. He was about 12-for-12 on his shots, so we were giving it to him out there a bit, but he’s way beyond his years.”
Sam is in camp with his older brother Griffin Reinhart, a defenceman from the Edmonton Oil Kings, who may not be around for the world juniors because he has a good chance of making the New York Islanders roster this season.
But if Griffin plays, they would be the first brothers on the Canadian team since Freddie and Dougie Hamilton in 2012. The only other brother combination was Randy and Mike Moller in 1982.
Not on the ice was winger Jonathan Drouin, the third overall pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who will sit out both days with a sore foot. Drouin had been looking forward to skating with his Halifax Mooseheads linemate Nathan MacKinnon, who went first overall to Colorado.
That chance is gone, because the four returning players from the last world juniors – MacKinnon, Drouin, Reinhart and Morgan Rielly of the Moose Jaw Warriors – will not make the trip to Lake Placid so that coaches can get a better look at the newcomers.
The injury is not considered serious. Drouin had recently been hit in the foot by a puck, a team spokesman said.
Felix Girard of the Baie-Comeau Drakkar took his spot on the line with MacKinnon and big Plymouth Whalers right winger Wilson.
The players were split into two groups, each on the ice for an hour to skate drills as coaches begin to install their system of play.
Only the three goalies, Zach Fucale of the Mooseheads, Eric Comrie of the Tri-City Americans and Jake Paterson of Saginaw Spirit took part in both sessions.
Monday’s session will have a scrimmage to get everyone involved at once.
“Today was a bit of a skill practice, and obviously we play in two days so we have to start implementing some things we want to do in a game-like situation,” Sutter said. “We didn’t have a lot of ice time with each group, we certainly could have used a little bit more, but you do the best you can with what you have.
“I thought the guys responded really well with it, the pace was really good and it was for the most part pretty sharp for the first day on ice.”