Young Stars: McDavid Shines in Spurts During Oilers Debut

PENTICTON — Connor McDavid scored, but mostly coasted, in his NHL debut.

Except for those first couple shifts when he had that generational-talent jump in his step that made him a no-brainer for the Edmonton Oilers with the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft.

From the opening puck-drop Friday night, it was very evident that McDavid was on another level from everybody else at the Young Stars tournament in Penticton. He was flying early on, showing off that gear that nobody else could get to, using his blazing speed to generate a few chances in the game’s opening minute. The building was buzzing in anticipation of something special, which seemed inevitable every time McDavid touched the puck.

That was, until his Canadian world-junior teammate Jake Virtanen plastered McDavid into the boards midway through the first period. He bounced right back up, but seemed to ease up the rest of the way. Not because he was injured, but just because he had nothing to prove at this prospect showcase.

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Cole Cassels couldn’t take the credit for shutting down McDavid on this night, he more or less shut himself down in a different sense, deciding to save his best for another time and place. For a more serious setting, like his regular-season debut Oct. 8 in St. Louis against the Blues. That night, there might be no stopping McDavid, who is considered the best prospect to come along since Sidney Crosby a decade ago. A teenager from Newmarket, Ont., that Steven Stamkos claims is “better than me right now.”

That was lofty praise, but no matter who you talk to in the hockey world, they just keep heaping it on McDavid. And you could see glimpses of why, that when he wanted to wind it up, he could pretty much do as he pleased on this stage.

In the end, McDavid finished with only two points in an 8-2 blowout of the host Vancouver Canucks. He had a power-play assist in the second period, a simple pass back to Darnell Nurse, whose point shot beat a screened Clay Witt, an NCAA graduate signed to an AHL deal with Vancouver’s farm team, the Utica Comets.

McDavid’s third-period goal, which made it 7-2, was a chip shot of sorts on a broken play — not a thing of beauty by any means, but they all count the same, and it’ll no doubt be his first of many.

[pull_quote_left author=””]“It was alright, obviously I could have played better personally,” McDavid told the post-game media scrum.[/pull_quote_left]

Still, it was fun to be there, fun to watch.

Even if McDavid was picking his spots to shine and pacing himself for more important games to come, he was the main attraction and didn’t disappoint, leaving those in attendance with some cool memories. They will never forget where they were the first time McDavid wore an Oilers jersey, assuming he lives up to the hype and, who knows, maybe breaks one or two of Gretzky’s records.

That’s getting way ahead of ourselves — let the kid play a real game first, before we go to those extremes — but McDavid needed only a shift or two here to show just how special he’s going to be. And had that Virtanen hit not happened, who knows, we could be talking about a hat trick or another five-goal game like he had at the Oilers’ development camp this summer.

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It needs to be reiterated, though, that McDavid wasn’t scared off by the contact or shying away, he simply realized there was no need to put himself in harm’s way in what amounted to a meaningless game at this point of the pre-season.

[pull_quote_left author=””]“I got hit, it was part of the game. That stuff is going to happen. It’s no problem, not a big deal at all,” McDavid said afterwards.[/pull_quote_left]

Virtanen missed that memo, but in his defence — despite also being a first-round pick — Virtanen’s in a different situation at the Young Stars. He’s trying to make an impression on Vancouver’s brass in an attempt to make the NHL roster this season, and what better way to get their attention than by flattening Edmonton’s latest-and-greatest savior.

Mission accomplished on that front, and Virtanen wasn’t a one-hit wonder either. That might be the moment that stands out above all others when we look back on this game, but Virtanen was a force throughout. He stood up Mitch Moroz — who was standing up for McDavid — in a collision that sent Moroz’s helmet sailing. Virtanen also clashed with Nurse on numerous occasions, even dropping their gloves at one point, though no punches were exchanged. Besides Brendan Gaunce, with a goal and an assist, Virtanen was probably the Canucks’ most dangerous forward offensively too. He was fully engaged from the outset, especially physically. So good on Virtanen — after all, it was a clean check on McDavid, as ill-timed as it may have been at an event like this.

Not to worry, their paths will cross again soon enough in this rivalry. Virtanen may have set the tone, but it’s still advantage McDavid going forward. Once he matches that intensity, it should be no contest.

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Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.