There is one way to talk about Connor McDavid, the 18-year-old hockey wunderkind who’s basically a lock to go #1 in the NHL draft in June.
This is that way: He is the heir apparent. He is a hockey prophet in the tradition of Gretzky, Lemieux, Bobby Orr, the kind who is sent every few years to remind us that the hockey gods are watching. He is “the most anticipated NHL prospect in decades,” respects to Sidney Crosby. He is such a rare talent that bottom-rung teams are wondering if they should lose games for a better chance at drafting him.
“I watch him too much and I think too much about him,” said Tim Murray, the GM of one of those teams, the Buffalo Sabres.
“This guy I call our franchise-changing player.”
And why not? At 15, the kid was already so good that the Ontario Hockey League gave him “exceptional status” — only the third time the OHL has ever done this — so he could start playing there. That was in 2012, and since then word has gotten around about his game. He’s now gotten a phone call from Gretzky. He’s been invited to hang out at a hockey game with Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby. His agent is Bobby Orr.
Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk, who knows a thing or two about the game, told The New York Times, “He skates like Bobby Orr. He has the vision of Wayne Gretzky. And he handles the puck like Mario Lemieux.”
An NHL scout said, “He makes plays that are truly amazing placing him in a class of his own.”
Hockey’s entire brain trust couldn’t be wrong…could they?
As journalists, we’re taught to be skeptical of dominant patterns of thinking. And so, even though I’m a) a sports blogger (barely!); b) an American, and thus judged hockey-illiterate by Canadians; c) not a professional hockey scout…it feels right to call this out. It feels right to do two things:
- Get everybody’s superlatives about Connor on the record, right now. Just. In. Case.
- Wishing Connor the best, remember what history shows us: that #1 picks have crashed and burned before; and there’s a reason they play the games.
They get injured.
Eric Lindros was one of those heirs apparent, back in 1991. It was not hard to see why he was drafted #1. Not only did he have an elite skill set, his 6-4, 240-lb. frame gave him a dominant physical presence: the size and temperament of The Hulk.
I can’t put it any better than this: “When Lindros gets that ugly on, it gets scary.”
As he centered the Philadelphia Flyers’ fearsome “Legion of Doom” line, scoring at a Hall-of-Fame pace, it was easy to imagine the rest of his brilliant career: multiple scoring titles, Stanley Cups galore. But Lindros got his bell rung a few too many times. When Scott Stevens — one of the most savage hitters to ever play the game — delivered this thunderstrike in the 2000 playoffs, it was Lindros’ sixth concussion in 27 months.
He sat out the next season. He tumbled through five more seasons and a couple of teams before retiring in 2007. He never won a Cup.
Mario Lemieux (drafted #1 in 1984) won two Cups, and he actually beat cancer before his career was derailed by back problems. Sidney Crosby, the best player in the game today (drafted #1 in 2005), has already won a Cup and two Olympic gold medals. But concussions have dogged him in recent seasons, and in the violent world of hockey, that means he’s playing the rest of his career on the knife’s edge.
They can’t get it together.
Alexandre Daigle is the bust par excellence of the modern era.
(Not that kind of bust.)
Drafted #1 in 1993, Daigle raised just one question among hockey hypers of the day: Just how damn good would he be? “The signs of greatness are already there in Alexandre Daigle,” a TV commentator cooed on draft day.
Alexandre Daigle played for six NHL teams, scoring 327 points before giving up and moving to the Swiss leagues.
Daigle is an extreme example of what we all know: lower levels of the game don’t automatically translate to the pro game. Although Daigle’s talent was considered top-shelf, and he was a scoring machine in junior hockey, it became apparent in the NHL that he lacked motivation. Motivation is kind of important when you’re up against gigantic, fast, hostile men on skates whose coach is urging them to crunch you like a bag of Chex Mix. That’s why, if you’re lacking in this area, you end up playing in Switzerland and trying not to Google your name.
They choke in the playoffs
“Nobody remember losers,” Alexander Ovechkin told ESPN in 2013. “Everybody remember only winners.”
The winning seemed like a sure thing when the Washington Capitals drafted him #1 in 2004. His game was pure thrills. He’d romp around the ice like Taz, throwing explosive hits and emerging from the wreckage with the puck. He’d burst into the zone and rifle a shot so hard it’d seem to sizzle. His legs would churn ceaselessly toward his next impulsive target. There was joy in his destruction; it was as though a toddler had taken control of a coordinated, 230-lb. frame.
But nobody remember losers, and Ovechkin’s done a fair bit of it. In six playoff seasons with the Capitals, he’s never advanced past the second round. Scoring 31 goals in 58 career playoff games is pretty remarkable work — unless you’re the franchise player of a team and one of the most dynamic goal-scorers of the decade. Until Ovechkin at least gets a team to the finals, he’s going to hear the label “choker” — not just from fans, but in his nightmares.
If all goes according to plan, Connor McDavid will be drafted #1 in June. After that, he’d do well to sit quietly and watch some tape of Ovechkin’s Capitals, or Joe Thornton’s (drafted #1 in 1997) San Jose Sharks, imploding in the playoffs year after year. Connor really does seem like a kind, good-hearted lad. But perhaps this would help make him a more modest one.