When last we saw Connor McDavid, he was just beginning his early onset midlife crisis.
By his own low-key standard, he torched his team at the end of last season. When someone double-barrelled a question at him about missing the playoffs again, but starting to “click” as a unit, McDavid laughed out loud.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter.”
A few days later he was trucked into the net during a meaningless season finale and blew out his knee. “I’d be a complete loser if I wasn’t frustrated,” was how he summed up the year.
Four years into the Connor McDavid era, McDavid kept getting better and the Edmonton Oilers kept getting worse. No one seemed more confused by this turn of events than the man at the middle of it.
A general conversation began to emerge in the NHL – does McDavid need rescuing? Is there something the army can do? Doesn’t it have helicopters and experience with human extraction?
McDavid – the companiest company man in the NHL – laughed off those questions, too.
“I want to be here,” he said. “If I didn’t want to be here, I wouldn’t have signed an eight-year deal.”
It sounded believable. Almost.
Now that he’s had the summer to think about it, McDavid doesn’t sound any more sure about things.
The knee isn’t healed. He is skating, but not in anything resembling game conditions. The Oilers have changed a bunch of name plates in the executive suites and are still an on-paper mess.
But it’s August, a magical month in the NHL. You are far enough removed from last season to have forgotten the worst bits, and close enough to the next one to start getting excited.
Well, most people are.
McDavid was in Toronto on Monday attending – but not participating in – a camp put on by one of his sponsors. And he was not excited.
In fairness, McDavid never exactly looks overjoyed. His default emotion appears to be Rest Mode. But surely there should be some back-to-school jitters at this point of the year. This is a guy who once said that his hobby away from hockey is thinking about hockey.
Now that he plays for the Edmonton Oilers, he looks like a guy who’s getting ready to return to a coal pit. There is no joie de vivre in this rapidly aging young man.
Take, for instance, a very simple question: Do you think you’ll make the playoffs next year?
There is only one right answer here – a definitive “Yes,” whether or not you believe it to be true. You can be defeatist in March. You can’t do it before you’ve played a single game in anger.
McDavid’s answer? “It’s still super early. I mean, we haven’t even got together yet.”
That’s not a ‘yes.’ In fact, it sounds like a non-confrontational way of saying ‘no.’
What does he think of new Oilers head coach Dave Tippett?
“We had dinner a couple of weeks ago and it was good. Nothing too serious.”
Calm down, fella. All this gushing is going to short out the microphones.
What about those trades Edmonton made this off-season?
“Obviously disappointing to see a good friend like Looch [Milan Lucic] go.”
Here’s how you know what a player thinks of your trade – when he leads by mentioning the guy who left rather than the one who just arrived, he doesn’t think much of it.
Maybe it’s the injury. Maybe it’s the Oilers. Maybe it’s being 22 years old and getting punched in the face by life for the first time. But McDavid does not look, sound or feel like a man who enjoys his work. He looks, sounds and feels like rather the opposite.
Sidney Crosby had the same start in professional life as McDavid – drafted onto a shambles of a team and weighed down by crushing expectation. On an individual level, you’d be hard pressed to separate what each managed in their first four years. McDavid may be the better.
But at this point in his career, Crosby had won a Stanley Cup and played in two finals in a row. McDavid’s made one playoff appearance and doesn’t appear convinced he’ll ever make another.
If this is bad for McDavid, it’s worse for the rest of us. Because he is making US$100-million to be depressed by pro hockey and the rest of us make nothing to be depressed by his depression.
You don’t want to start throwing the word ‘deserve’ around here. McDavid doesn’t ‘deserve’ better. He’s an entertainer. His reward for entertaining is deposited electronically into his bank account.
But where’s our reward? If hockey is a key component of the cultural lifeblood of this country, we are all being rendered anemic by the Oilers.
The Oilers can’t fix that because if they could, they would have by now.
So it’s getting near time for McDavid to fix it. If he wants to leave, he’s going to have to say that out loud in public.
Once he does, it will happen. No team can weather the bad press of featuring a guy who does not want to be there. It may take a while. It will be ugly. But it will definitely happen.
Maybe that’s why McDavid seems so down in the dumps. Not because things are going poorly, but because it’s beginning to dawn on him that there’s only one way to make them better.
Very soon now, he must decide what sort of career he wants.
Is it the sort where you make your money in relative anonymity, put up Hall of Fame numbers and never accomplish anything important?
Or is it the sort where you accept that, sometimes, good guys have to play the villain in order to get what they want?
There’s no correct answer to that one. McDavid has every right to whatever sort of career he wants. But based entirely on the way he looks at the moment, one suspects he knows which way he’d prefer to go.