WASHINGTON — Edmonton Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli pulled up stats on his computer to see what recent No. 1 draft picks did in their rookie seasons. Nathan MacKinnon had 63 points two years ago, John Tavares had 54 in 2009-10.
Oilers forward Connor McDavid goes into his rookie year with the highest expectations of anyone since Sidney Crosby 10 years ago. Crosby blew up for 102 points, and didn’t even win the Calder Trophy because Alex Ovechkin had 106.
No one expects McDavid to be a 100-point player as an 18-year-old, but several top picks have high expectations for the phenom who has drawn comparisons to Crosby and even Wayne Gretzky.
“I haven’t seen a kid with that much talent, I think, ever,” 2008 top pick Steven Stamkos said. “Dynamic is, I guess, the word of the day when it comes to watching him skate out there and handle the puck and just handle himself off the ice. I think it’s going to be a pretty smooth transition for him.”
McDavid is coming off a season in which he averaged 2.55 points a game with the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters. To put that into perspective, Crosby averaged 2.7 a game in his final season with Rimouski Oceanic in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Crosby knows the circus and the buildup McDavid is experiencing better than anyone, and it’s more than Stamkos, Tavares and MacKinnon had to deal with. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ captain said the biggest thing McDavid will have to get used to is the constant expectations going from city to city.
“How many 18-year-olds have this ability? I’m sure (expectations are) high as they should be,” Crosby said. “He’s pretty level-headed. I think he’s got things figured out pretty early on. I understand that the expectations are high, but he looks like a guy who’s going to be able to live with them.”
Tempering expectations, Chiarelli estimated McDavid can score 20 goals and put up 20 assists.
“People look at me like I got three heads,” Chiarelli said.
Last season, when Florida Panthers defenceman Aaron Ekblad won the Calder, only three rookies — the Ottawa Senators’ Mark Stone, Calgary Flames’ Johnny Gaudreau and Nashville’s Filip Forsberg — had over 60 points.
Tavares, the top pick in 2009, watched a lot of McDavid last year because roommate Ryan Strome’s brother Dylan played in Erie, too. He says the sky’s the limit on McDavid’s potential and that this season is a proving ground like it was for him.
“Obviously you’re receiving a lot of attention,” the New York Islanders’ captain said. “I don’t think he tries to bring any more onto himself, but certainly his game does that for him. But he wants to go out there and prove that, that he deserves what he’s getting.”
Ovechkin said because his English wasn’t that strong that he couldn’t pay attention to too much hype. Then the Washington Capitals star piled up the points.
“As soon as the season starts it was more attention to me because I played well and I was compared between me and Sid,” said the 2004 top pick, who was actually 20 in his rookie year. “I know (McDavid) is good. But NHL, it’s a different league and you have to be ready for a physical game and be ready mentally.”
Stamkos believes McDavid is already ahead of the curve there because he’s been working with Gary Roberts in the summer.
“He’s still going to physically mature as he gets older as everyone does,” Stamkos said. “But I think he has the understanding and I think his speed and his skill-set is that far advanced from your typical 18-year-old to come into the league in the last couple years that he’ll be fine.”
Oilers teammate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who went right from the Western Hockey League to the NHL after being the top pick in 2011, said McDavid will make the jump better than most rookies.
“Just the way that he skates, he’s a powerful skater and he does everything at high speed,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “I think that’s going to help him the most going into this year.”
Tavares said of McDavid’s speed: “I’ve never seen a kid change gears where you think he’s at top speed and hit another level like he does.” That’s high praise for someone who has played alongside Crosby at the Olympics.
Ekblad played with McDavid for Canada at the 2014 world junior championship and knows that whatever hype he felt in South Florida a year ago, it’ll be tenfold for McDavid in Edmonton.
“Especially being in Edmonton for Connor, the media, the coaches, everyone has their own expectations of yourself. But if you stick to what you know and focus on your own personal goals, that’s probably most important.”
In 1998, then-Tampa Bay Lightning owner Art Williams said No. 1 pick Vincent Lecavalier would be “the Michael Jordan of hockey.” So Lecavalier understands a little of the weight of expectations that McDavid is under going into the NHL.
“Obviously he’s got a bit of a different level,” Lecavalier said. “He’s playing in a Canadian city, so there’s going to be a lot of reporters, a lot of hype. But I think he’s just that good that he’s just going to stay in that bubble and do his thing.”
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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press