The other day, Connor McDavid gave Architectural Digest a tour of his house in Edmonton.
You know that thing they say about a certain type of attractive man – is he handsome or is he just tall? This house is the real estate equivalent. Is it nice or is it just big?
It’s the sort of house you get when you order the ‘tech billionaire starter kit.’ Elevator? Check. Pop-out flat-screen built into the custom bed frame? Check. Neon word sculpture ripped off from Tracey Emin? Check.
McDavid gives the tour like it’s part of the terms of his work-release – hands dug into his pockets, shuffling around behind his girlfriend, looking excruciated.
Here’s McDavid, standing in front of one of those walls of wine that feature in only the jazziest steakhouses: “When we first moved in, we were going to liquor stores and just trying to buy the coolest labels we could find. … I have no idea if any of it is any good.”
But the fact that this audio-visual curio exists tells you something about where McDavid has got to, and it’s not just about the size of his paycheque.
Had McDavid done this video six years ago, they’d say, “Too much, too fast.” Had he done it three years ago, they’d say, “Can’t focus on what matters.” And had he done it last spring, they’d say, “Maybe you can use those extra bedrooms to hide the Oilers’ executive team from hysterical season ticketholders.”
But now it’s okay because everything is (sort of, and in this moment) coming together.
McDavid has never disappointed as an individual professional, but he is working at a different level this year. His highlights have highlights. Little moments where he will float into the opponents’ zone like a shark surfacing in a swimming pool – everyone freezes, allowing McDavid to go where he wants and do what he likes.
It doesn’t look like much on the replay until you realize that, despite being the last person in hockey you want to give this sort of space to, McDavid is the only person in hockey who gets this sort of space. He’s Hakeem Olajuwon on skates.
From an individual perspective, things have lined up beautifully for him – it’s not just the year he’s having, but the year still to come. If you’re going to peak, two months ahead of the NHL’s ‘Welcome Back!’ party at the Winter Olympics is when you’d like to do it. A gold medal insulates him from all the playoff pressure that heats up once he gets home.
But it’s all the stuff McDavid can’t control that is really working out for him.
For the first time since he arrived there, the Oilers consistently look like the team they expected to be when he arrived.
You know how it goes when you do any sort of renovation – time, cost and quality. If you get two out of three, you should consider yourself lucky. It took forever and cost is not a consideration in a salary-cap league, but Edmonton appears to have figured out the quality part of the equation. It’s not the individual roster components per se, but the mix that finally seems right. No team is perfect, but the Oilers are now imperfect in a way that makes sense.
This all requires pressure-testing in the postseason. Like all overobserved, overpraised Canadian NHL teams, all the Oilers have to do is win one round and a fair chunk of their fanbase will celebrate it like they’re the Canadiens riding herd through the 1970s. It’s not the bar’s fault that it’s that low, but there you go.
If you want to go two degrees of separation out, there’s McDavid in relation to the Calgary Flames.
If Edmonton were cutting a trail through the league all by itself, that’d be fine. A lot of pressure. But fine.
Instead, you have Calgary coming up the inside on it. The Flames are every hipster fan’s new favourite – cool uniforms, a 150-year-old coach, playing old-timey, paint-shaker hockey.
Is Calgary for real now that Darryl Sutter and his Robert-De-Niro-in-Taxi Driver coaching style have returned? Were I McDavid & Friends, I would certainly hope so.
As long as Calgary is good, Edmonton is under slightly less pressure to be so as well. If the Battle of Alberta is a thing again, that means no individual player is getting spliced under the microscope because he hasn’t scored in four consecutive periods. And if the two teams finish one-two in the Pacific Division – as they currently stand – that means everybody can have one playoff round this season and call it a success.
There’s a term of art to describe Canadian hockey teams that are in top form in the regular season – incipient mirages. No Canadian team can ever be trusted in the regular season.
Instead of a peak-performance department, these outfits would be better off hiring a bunch of cable guys. That way they can install a cell-signal blocker on top of the arena and play in a Florida-type environment – total media blackout as it applies to hockey.
But barring that, a rising tide that floats all boats seems like the best path out of nationwide mediocrity. If a bunch of teams are good at once, it reduces the focus on any one of them. Less focus means less pressure means better results (theoretically).
Right now, that process is working to the special advantage of the game’s best player. He’s feeling so free and easy that he’s able to do some off-ice peacocking about all the nice things he can afford.
But right now is November. We’ll have to see how many house tours McDavid’s offering to do in July.