At 21, Connor McDavid should not have much to fret about.
He is already considered by many observers to be the best player in the league, even better than Sidney Crosby. Entering his fourth year in the NHL, McDavid has led the league in points for the past two seasons, won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player in 2016-17 and was selected by his peers two seasons in a row as the winner of the NHL Players’ Association’s Ted Lindsay Award, which goes to the most outstanding player.
But on Monday McDavid said he had just come through his most difficult off-season since joining the NHL in 2015. Individual accomplishments can seem insignificant in a team game, especially when your team, the Edmonton Oilers, was the biggest disappointment in the league last season.
Individually, McDavid said, he has not changed his training routine much. He still works out with former NHLer and noted player trainer Gary Roberts. He is also spending this week at the BioSteel Pro Hockey Camp at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto, run by former Toronto Maple Leafs trainer and BioSteel co-founder Matt Nichol.
“Nothing really changes, just that bitter taste in everyone’s mouth about where we finished and where we left off last year,” McDavid said. “Everyone should be highly motivated, had a good summer and worked hard. It’s time to show it.”
In his second season, the Oilers finally shook off years of mediocrity and did something with all those high draft picks their poor seasons netted them over the years. They finished second in the Western Conference’s Pacific Division with a 47-26-9 record and made the playoffs for the first time in 10 years.
In 2017-18, the Oilers were expected to lead a resurgence of the Canadian NHL teams along with their equally young and talented Eastern Conference counterparts, the Toronto Maple Leafs. But Edmonton’s defensive game collapsed, and they spun to sixth in the Pacific with a 36-40-6 record and out of the playoffs again. Their goals-against went from 212 in 2016-17 to 263 last season, as goaltender Cam Talbot struggled along with the defence.
“Probably, yeah,” McDavid said when he was asked if last season was the most difficult one of his career. “I think another was maybe my first year in the NHL. Both years weren’t what we wanted as a team.
“Obviously my first year [2015-16] was a bit different. The expectations weren’t high. Last year, they were as high as they could possibly have been. So obviously we were disappointed with that.”
Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse, also headed into his fourth full NHL season, thinks the youthful team paid too much attention to its press notices. Both he and McDavid made it clear that all Oilers players have been thinking hard about making amends.
“The time we went through it in our first year [together], you get through the second year, get to the playoffs and you say, ‘We’re never going to be in that situation again,’ ” Nurse said. “It’s kind of a kick in the head going through last season and being in the same situation we were in the first season. I think it’s going to be a driving factor.
“One of the things you learn is you can’t believe your own hype. We didn’t have that hunger we had the year before that made us so successful. It will be good to have that back in the room.”
McDavid said he was grateful Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli did not make any major changes on the roster, giving the same group the opportunity to make things right. Personally, despite his quick ascension to the elite level of NHL players, McDavid thinks he can get better. After all, his 41 goals last season were only sixth in the NHL, and he figures he can skate faster.
“There’s always ways to improve your game and be more dynamic,” he said. “I’ve always said I want to score more – that’s what I want to do, find ways to score. Be a good passer, make plays and all that, but there’s definitely a knack to putting the puck in the net that I seemed to find a little bit later in the year last year and hope to carry that through this year.”
“He’s scary fast now,” said Nurse, who hopes his contract negotiations get finished in time for him to join McDavid at training camp in a few weeks. “That’s the way he is. He wants to get better no matter what level he’s at. That’s why he’s so great.”