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'He's just unique': Connor McDavid's masterful season continues with playoff push

Few were the nights this hockey season when a highlight reel didn't include a jaw-dropping clip of Connor McDavid. The Edmonton Oilers' superstar centre set up teammates with stunning no-look passes.

Few were the nights this hockey season when a highlight reel didn't include a jaw-dropping clip of Connor McDavid. 

The Edmonton Oilers' superstar centre set up teammates with stunning no-look passes. He stole pucks and sped through defenders, a haze of orange and blue. He sniped shot after shot past dazed goaltenders.

Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice conceded that his squad has little chance of keeping McDavid off the scoresheet when they face the Oilers in the first round of the playoffs, starting Wednesday.

"He’s that good," Maurice said. "You’re not stopping this guy completely. If you just do it right, if you just play the right way against Connor McDavid, he’s still putting up points against you. He’s that level of talent. You just can’t help him. He’s going to get them on his own. You just can’t help him do it.”

Long touted as one of the NHL's top talents, the 24-year-old Oilers captain ascended to new heights this year, tallying 100 points in 53 games. Only seven players in NHL history have reached the mark faster. 

By the end of the regular season, he led the league in scoring with 105 points (33 goals, 72 assists) in 56 games. His sometimes-linemate Leon Draisaitl was second with 84. 

McDavid's success was no surprise to Sherry Bassin, former owner and general manager of the Ontario Hockey League's Erie Otters, who knew McDavid was special even before he selected him first overall in the 2012 OHL entry draft. 

The then-15-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., had been granted exceptional-player status, becoming just the third player allowed to play in the league before turning 16. 

“It’s not the will to win, it’s the will to prepare to win. And he has a phenomenal will to prepare," said the longtime junior hockey executive. "He’s dedicated. There’s a difference between loving to play and loving the game. He loves the game.” 

McDavid has always been fastidious about his diet and training, and he puts a tremendous amount of responsibility on his own shoulders, Bassin said. 

One night in his first OHL season, McDavid had three breakaways during a game in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., but failed to capitalize on any of the attempts. The Otters lost and after the game, the player and GM were walking alone when McDavid said the defeat was his to carry. 

"He says to me ‘I want to apologize, sir.’ I said ‘Why are you apologizing?’ He says ‘I cost us the game. I had those opportunities and I didn’t finish them,'" Bassin recalled. "And I told him ‘Smarten up.'"

Bassin said McDavid is humble and big-hearted, not cocky or arrogant, and someone who always makes his teammates better. 

“You know how good a player he is so you can imagine, if I tell you he’s a better person, he’s a pretty special kid," he said.

“I’ve met a lot of players that had a lot of ability but I wish had more character. I’ve met a lot of players who’ve had a lot of character but I wish had more ability. He’s got both."

The pandemic-condensed NHL season was punctuated by multiple milestones for McDavid. 

He posted his 500th career point in his 369th game. He tallied his 10th career hat trick in a 6-1 win over Winnipeg on April 26. He played his 400th NHL game on May 1, a 4-1 win over the Calgary Flames. 

The Oilers finished the regular season second in the North Division with a 35-19-2 record and McDavid closed out the campaign on an eight-game point streak, scoring five goals and 16 assists during the stretch. 

While his offensive prowess has drawn awe, McDavid's coaches and teammates say there are other parts of his game that have reached new heights. 

Edmonton coach Dave Tippett said his star player had been "driving his game to new levels" all year. 

"Even some games down the stretch here that probably didn’t mean a lot in the standings, he was still geared up," Tippett said. "So he’s in a good frame of mind, he wants this team to do well, he wants to do well himself and so he’s pushed himself to get better every game.”

McDavid's defensive game has become stronger this year, said Darnell Nurse, noting that the centre has been committed to checking and being above the puck, setting an example for the entire Oilers locker-room.

"Every year he seems to bring back something different," said the defenceman. "Obviously he had so many points this year so you overlook the defensive side but he’s really bought in there and he’s showed it throughout the year."

Now in his sixth NHL season, McDavid strives to make the team the best it can be, said Mike Smith. 

“He’s taken strides this year that are super impressive," the Oilers goalie said. "Obviously everyone knows what he did on the scoreboard. But the maturity this kid brings every single day and how much he wants to impact this group says a lot about him and what he’s given to this organization."

And he's not done yet, Smith added.

“I know for a fact he’s not settling just for the success he had in the regular season," he said. "This is a very motivated player that wants to be an impact player in the playoffs and I’m sure we’ll see him — if it’s possible — take it to another level come Wednesday.”

McDavid's already posted some big numbers against the Jets this season. He had seven goals and 15 assists in a season series the Oilers won 7-2. 

Even his opponents admit to being impressed. 

"He really stepped up his game and it was impressive to watch," said Winnipeg centre Mark Scheifele. "I’m a big fan of his. He’s a fantastic hockey player and he’s the best player in our game right now."

Maurice has watched the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr come through the league and is hesitant to draw comparisons. 

But he's certainly proved himself to be a special talent, the Jets coach said. 

"He’s just unique," Maurice said. "This guy’s different than all other players and that uniqueness, he’s part of that group of players that are the greatest of all time.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2021. 

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press