BROSSARD, QUE. — Over the course of his three-year Ontario Hockey League career, Ben Harpur has faced his share of talented forwards. Young NHL stars like Edmonton’s Nail Yakupov and Montreal’s Alex Galchenyuk are a couple of names that come to mind.
The one that stands out the most, however, is Connor McDavid, Harpur’s teammate at Canada’s summer world junior camp.
“He’s one of the greatest skaters I’ve ever played against,” said the Guelph Storm defenceman. “When you’re in the corners, just his shiftiness, it’s hard to defend against him. It seems every time he touches the puck he’s making something happen, so it keeps you on your toes.”
At this point, you’d have to be cut off completely from the hockey world to have missed the comprehensive coverage of the teenager projected to be the game's next great player. McDavid is only 17, but has been profiled exhaustively since he was granted exceptional status by the OHL two years earlier to play with the Erie Otters against older kids. At 15, he became the youngest hockey player to sign a multi-million dollar endorsement deal with Reebok and had been followed around by reporters from the New York Times.
At the 2014 world junior championships in Malmo, Sweden, McDavid looked as if he belonged despite being younger than everyone else on Team Canada. Then again, playing above his age has never been a problem.
Sam Reinhart, 18, has played with McDavid a number of times going back to 2013 with Canada’s gold medal-winning under-18 team. They played together at world junior camps the following year and again in spells during the tournament.
“I played with him a numerous times on his line – even a couple years ago when he was so much younger than everybody – he came in and wasn’t out of place,” said Reinhart, who plays with the WHL’s Kootenay Ice. “He’s improved so much over the years and he’s only getting better.”
Having gone through the NHL draft process in June as a top prospect, Reinhart knows the kind of scrutiny McDavid will face over the next 10 months. With the world junior tournament being held in Toronto and Montreal that pressure to perform in front of the home crowd will only intensify, but Reinhart believes his friend will be fine.
“He’s had the pressure on (him) for a couple of years,” said Reinhart, the second-overall pick of the Buffalo Sabres. “I think this year it ramped up quite a bit playing with the world junior team, so I think when this tournament comes around for him I would be surprised if he wasn’t the best player on the ice – he’s always had (those expectations) around him, but I think he’s very comfortable in that situation.”Head coach Benoit Groulx, who served as an assistant coach on last year’s fourth-place team in Malmo, said his concern for McDavid is how he handles the pressure he places on himself, rather than how he deals with outside forces.
“For him it’s a matter of not putting too much pressure on himself,” said Groulx. “We all know what he can bring to this team and we believe (in) him and I think he’s going to be an important piece of our club at Christmas time.”
The McDavid versus Jack Eichel narrative is already playing out in August, some five months before the tournament starts and almost a year away from the 2015 NHL draft. Eichel, who is committed to play for Boston University, is one of the top draft-eligible players on Team USA. Like McDavid, he too was the youngest player on his team – only 17 - at the world junior championship last year.
Reinhart knows first-hand the way players are pitted against each other and weighed by scouts, hockey executives and the media.
“I’ve played with McDavid and I’ve played against Eichel and they’re both tremendous players,” said Reinhart. “I think they’re both going to handle it well I don’t think it’ll bother either of them. I don’t know Eichel too well off the ice … I know it won’t affect Connor too much because I think he thrives in that situation.”
But is it fair?
“It doesn’t really matter if it is or it isn’t,” said Reinhart. “It’s always going to be there, so players have to accept that, whether that’s someone on your own team or someone you play against quite a few times throughout the year or someone you play against internationally – it’s going to be there.”
At the moment, however, McDavid said he’s not worried about anything other than performing well at this summer camp. The draft, Eichel and the upcoming season with Erie are all on the backburner this week.
“At the end of the day you’re here for the world junior championship – nothing else - not your draft stock or anything else,” said the soft-spoken McDavid. “You’re just here to help represent Team Canada and that’s it, so you don’t pay too much attention to that stuff.”