TORONTO — On Saturday afternoon, Connor McDavid was skating against former junior players who were some five or six years his senior. Not once did the 16-year-old phenom look out of place.
It’s a true testament to how good he is and just how rare a talent he possesses.
Playing against a team of CIS university-aged veterans, McDavid scored a goal to help Team Canada skate away with a 3-0 victory. It was Canada’s lone game during their selection camp for the world junior championships – an under-20 tournament – that begins on Dec. 26 in Malmo, Sweden.
"I felt pretty good out there,” said McDavid. “We were coming out against a team that was a lot older -- and bigger. I felt like I had my legs. I thought the whole team played well for, you know, our first game together.
“I thought I played OK.”
Most players can only dream of matching what passes for “OK” in McDavid’s world.
“The one thing that really separates from all the other players is his skating,” said Kris Knoblauch, who coaches McDavid with the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters. “His all round speed is very fast. His edges are what makes him very hard to defend – you can try and be physical with him to take away his skill, but he moves so well laterally that it’s hard to be physical on him.”
Canada has brought 25 players to camp, which means head coach Brent Sutter will have cut one of the eight defencemen and two of the team’s 15 forwards after the team leaves for Sweden on Sunday. The coach has already committed to making those few, final cuts in Europe before the Dec. 25 roster deadline.
McDavid said at this point his solitary goal is to make sure he’s in the lineup when Canada opens the tournament against Germany.
“I’m not going to think about anything other than making this team,” McDavid told reporters after the game.
The Richmond Hill, Ont., native isn’t eligible for the NHL draft until 2015, but was still one of the best players on the ice for Team Canada. He was playing on a line with 18-year-old Sam Reinhart, the projected top pick in the 2014 NHL draft, and 19-year-old Hunter Shinkaruk, a first-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks.
"I thought we played pretty well together,” said McDavid. “I thought we deserved more than what we got. I don't think we really scored together as a line but we had a lot of chances.”
McDavid and Reinhart showed good chemistry together and it’s no surprise considering the pair were also teammates in April on Canada’s gold medal winning under-18 squad in Sochi, Russia.
Knoblauch understands better than most how the two players would interact. Before joining the Otters, the 35-year-old was the head coach of the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice, which gives him the distinction of having coached both McDavid and Reinhart.
“They’re different players,” said Knoblauch. “They’re both smart and offensive players. Sam’s a guy that slows the game down and can really dictate the pace of a game. He protects the puck really well and can find his teammates. Connor finds his teammates, but he does it a little differently – he increases the speed of the game and adapts so well to give defenders less time.
“They think the game similarly, but at the same time just the way they play the game is different.”
But the fact McDavid is still is only 16 has still left many at camp in awe – not least of which include older teammates.
“I wish I was that good when I was 16 – I still I wish I was that good,” said fellow Canadian forward Curtis Lazar, 18, a first round pick of the Ottawa Senators. “You wouldn’t even know he was 16 the way he fits in with us – we’re definitely glad to have him here.
“You can’t really describe his skill. He’s amazing.”
McDavid has been in the spotlight for some time now, since having garnered “exceptional status” by the OHL to play in the league as a 15-year-old. Only three players have earned the designation in its current form – New York Islanders star John Tavares, Barrie Colts defenceman Aaron Ekblad – also at camp with Canada – and McDavid. He’s already been featured in the New York Times and became the youngest player in hockey history to sign a multi-year, multi-million dollar endorsement deal with Reebok.
Should he make the team – and he should – McDavid will find himself in rarified company. Only five players have suited up for Team Canada at age 16: forwards Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Sidney Crosby, Jason Spezza and defenceman Jay Bouwmeester.
He has already shown he’ll do whatever it takes to earn a spot. Against the CIS squad, Sutter kept his lines intact, but played around with the special teams. On one two-man power play, Sutter had McDavid working the point, which was a different experience for the centre.
"I will do whatever (Sutter) wants me to,” said the 6-foot, 185-pound forward. “It was nice to play the power play and everything like that. But there are 15 other forwards that can do that. I just want to worry about keeping my play up."
In Erie, it’s defenceman Adam Pelech – who is also at Canada’s camp – who plays the point on the Otters power play. McDavid sees lots of time with the man advantage, though Knoblauch says most of it is spent down low or at the half wall - he’s never tried the star on the point.
It is something, however, the coach might consider if it works for Canada.
“We were thinking about things that we could do on our power play and we were discussing him being on the point,” said Knoblauch.
“I’m not surprised. Where ever he is he’ll find his teammates and create opportunities.”