When Connor McDavid joined the Ontario Hockey League at the tender age of 15 back in 2012, you knew he was going to be special. In the years that have passed, he’s more than lived up to the hype.
As an 18-year-old playing out the final few games of his remarkable junior career with the Erie Otters, he’s leading the OHL in playoff scoring – not surprisingly – with 19 goals and 24 assists for 43 points in 17 games. He’s run roughshod over his opponents and in the league’s Western Conference final almost single-handedly defeated the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, the top-ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League.
In that six-game series he scored seven goals and added seven assists, antagonizing what was thought to be a strong Soo defence and a depth-filled team that stocked up before the trade deadline to take a run at a league championship.
“Nobody has been able to shut down the McDavid kid,” Oshawa Generals coach D.J. Smith told the Columbus Dispatch. “He’s running through our league like nobody has done before.”
That all changed last weekend when McDavid faced the Generals in the OHL final. In winning the opening two games on home ice, Oshawa held the projected top pick at the 2015 NHL draft to a single point.
“It’s just paying special attention to him when he’s on the ice,” said Generals captain Josh Brown, who along with Dakota Mermis are the defensive pair assigned to McDavid. “We’ve watched the video, we know how fancy and unreal he can play, so we’ve been paying special attention to our systems and it’s been working so far.”
In Game 2, Oshawa held McDavid scoreless – a feat no other team had been able to do since the Niagara IceDogs on March 11 before the start of the OHL playoffs.
Oddly enough, prior to Oshawa, the team that seemed to do the best job of containing McDavid in the playoffs were the young Sarnia Sting in the first round. Assistant coach Chris Lazary said his team went through hours and hours of McDavid video. They focused particularly on the breakouts the Otters have designed specifically to get McDavid the puck and the space to skate with it.
“They’ll do a set breakout more than probably any other team in our league,” said Lazary. “We went back and heavily pre-scouted six, seven, eight of the breakouts that we thought they used the most and we’d counteract that with a set forecheck so at least he wasn’t picking up the puck with speed – another player might get it, but he was eliminated from getting the puck where he wanted it with a lot of room to skate.”
Sounds easy enough. The problem, says Lazary, is when McDavid does get the puck – particularly behind the net – the opposition tends to scramble.
“When he enters the zone with the puck, if he’s coming down the left-wing side most of the time he’ll take the puck around the net and he’ll either make a quick little slip pass because everybody panics when he goes around the net and they cheat to the puck for some reason,” said Lazary, who once coached McDavid as a minor bantam during a spring tournament.
Like Sarnia, Brown says the Oshawa staff have dedicated hours to breaking down video to pick apart McDavid’s habits and tendencies – of which there are many.
“It’s tough because he’s got great speed and unbelievable hands,” said Brown. “We’re just trying to keep puck out of his hands. He’s a pretty shifty player so you can’t just bull-rush him, so you almost have to play a man and a half on him and (use the body) when you get a chance.”
Still, the fact that Oshawa has been able to contain McDavid through two games has been impressive. But with the next two games on home ice at the Erie Insurance Arena, it might just be a matter of time before McDavid and the Otters find their footing once again.
“I don’t think anyone’s going to stop him completely,” said Bob Jones, who runs the defence as associate coach with the Windsor Spitfires. “I think you can limit his chances by playing a good brand of team defence – putting back pressure on him from the forwards, the (defence) having a tight gap giving him less time and space to maneuver the puck.
“You have to guard against him getting behind your net, so you want to push him up the walls and push him away from the net.”
Which is exactly what Oshawa has managed to do thus far.
Greg Gilbert, head coach of the Saginaw Spirit, says trying to neutralize McDavid over a long period of time is difficult considering the way the young superstar and Erie head coach Kris Knoblauch have been adapting to changes as the opposition attempt to thwart his offensive wizardry.
“Playing against a player like (McDavid) you always have to be making adjustments,” said Gilbert. “It’s not a one-game thing; it’s a shift-to-shift thing. You know they’re going to change their style to counteract what you’re doing to them as a team and as an individual, so you have to continue to adapt to close those doors they’re trying to get through.”
And those doors are constantly being crafted by Knoblauch and his staff. The Otters coach says he’s always thinking up plays for McDavid to take advantage of having the most dangerous player in the CHL at his disposal. Whatever he draws up, he says McDavid quickly puts it into action.
“He’s always thinking about the game,” said Knoblauch. “If you have a play for him or you’re showing him video of a power play and you can say, ‘You can try this’ but he’ll also be thinking, ‘Yes, that’ll work, but so will this.’ So he’s got a mind for the game. It’s not that he’s got this talent and he can skate and stickhandle, he’s got the mind to think the game.”
It’s that cerebral quality, anticipation and pure speed with the puck that have made him a nightmare to try to contain. In addition to the tight defence, the Generals have also been layering and clogging up the neutral zone to force McDavid to either pass the puck or beat more than one man to get to the net. In Game 1 of the series, the Otters captain beat three players on the power play to set up a Remi Elie goal.
“We’re trying to get him to go through five players every time he gets (the puck) and that’s a tough thing to do,” said Smith. “We have some good players out there, Mermis, Brown, (Cole) Cassels, and these guys are battling and they’re making it tough on him.”
Having worked closely with Smith in Windsor, Jones says there’s no better team equipped size-wise to handle McDavid. In addition to Brown and Mermis on defence, Smith has tasked Cassels, Bradley Latour and 6-foot-6, 210-pound Hunter Smith – aptly nicknamed “Big Rig” – to go up against Erie’s top line of McDavid, Elie and Alex DeBrincat.
“D.J. probably brings one of the most physical games in the whole league and certainly in the (Eastern Conference) by far,” said Jones. “It’s a brand of hockey he’s had success with and he’s used to coaching that way. It’s going to be a lot tougher series on Erie than the Soo was physically.”
There’s a fine line between playing physical and conceding penalties. Undisciplined play and ill-timed infractions are what proved to be the undoing of the Greyhounds as the Otters went 10-for-23 on the power play during their series. Against Oshawa, they’ve gone 1-for-8, including 0-for-6 in Game 2.
“You’ve got to play (McDavid) tight,” said Gilbert. “You want to touch him up every opportunity you have and wear him down over the course of the series. If you can slow him down and make him play with a few bumps and bruises, that’s a step in the right direction.”
That means finishing checks, giving McDavid a little tap on the back of the legs and talking to him after the whistle at every opportunity, something all teams he’s faced in the playoffs have tried to do.
“He’s mentally strong though,” said Lazary. “He doesn’t break too much, but any chance you have to get a lick on him you have to.”
“You’ve got to be careful though,” adds Gilbert, “because sooner or later the referees are going to get sick of it and (McDavid's) going to be licking his chops at the odd-man situation.”
The question now is whether McDavid and the Otters can rebound in the next two games to counteract Oshawa’s oppressive team defence. If they can’t, McDavid will finish his illustrious junior hockey career leaving fans and coaches alike knowing they’ve witnessed one of the best.
“I’ve never seen a player as good as him with my own two eyes in real time,” said Lazary.