Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Connor McDavid Returns to Oilers Lineup

Edmonton Oilers rookie Connor McDavid will return Tuesday.

It hasn’t been easy being an Oilers fan. In fact, folks here will tell you it’s been a humbling, punishing existence — except of course for that day every spring when the bald guy raises the Golden Placard.

Yet even here those same Hockey Gods who smiled upon John Scott have exacted maximum revenge on Oiler fans. Through bumbling management, one of the worst draft records in recent NHL history, and a litany of one-and-done coaches, there has been a negative reaction of equal proportion to every bit of good luck Oiler fans have enjoyed.

Then you get a fancy new toy and it’s busted after only 13 games.

On Tuesday Connor McDavid returns to Edmonton’s lineup at Rexall Place — finally — injecting some much-needed relevance into yet another lost season. He flew on to the scene with too-good-to-be-true skills back in October, raising locals’ hopes to their highest point in years. Then he busted his collarbone after just 13 games, and has missed two months.

“It feels like my first game all over again,” he said after Monday’s 2 p.m. local practice, as clubs re-opened their dressing rooms after the All-Star break. “You feel a little bit more comfortable having those 13 games of experience. You’re not starting from scratch, but you’re starting from a lesser point than a lot of people.”
In his first pro games at any level McDavid was, to these eyes, the best player on the ice in five of 13 games. He was in the first star conversation in three or four more.

“He was driving our team — the energy guy — when he got hurt,” admits Oilers coach Todd McLellan.

At 18, a time when most players are looking forward to their dominant major junior years, McDavid has already dominated men with hundreds of games of NHL experience. On his own team, flush with copious high draft picks that all have age and experience on him, McDavid was ranked second in scoring at the time of his injury.

Now, he’s missed 37 games and two months of the season. Could he possibly be that good upon his return tonight vs. Columbus?

“It helps, for sure, that he started the season. Especially him, in his first year in the NHL,” said right-winger Jordan Eberle. “And I think it’s going to help that he’s coming back at a time when everyone’s getting back from a break, and he had a chance to go down to (AHL) Bakersfield and practice.”

So, what’s left for McDavid to accomplish in this truncated rookie campaign?

Well for one, it is a commonly held belief that GM Peter Chiarelli is ready to trade either Eberle or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for some immediate blue-line help. If Eberle, whose silky mitts are perfectly suited for a passer of McDavid’s pedigree, goes on a tear playing next to McDavid, does his trade become less likely? Or more?

Nugent-Hopkins (broken hand) is out, but when he comes back he may see some time on the wing as the Oilers try to quantify his versatility. Is he a Joe Pavelski-type centreman who can be stored out on the wing in reserve? Or can Nugent-Hopkins only play the middle, which ranks him at No. 3 here behind McDavid and young Leon Draisaitl?

Now that McDavid has returned, the 32-game assessment begins.

“I don’t think Ebs and I have played a shift together before,” McDavid mused. “I came back the day (after) he got injured. We haven’t even been in a game together,” confirmed Eberle.

When the season began, it would have been ridiculous to hold a Calder Trophy debate that did not at least include McDavid’s name. Today, with McDavid 18th in rookie scoring in the National Hockey League, it’s hard to believe he could possibly be a finalist.

He has played exactly 40 less games than rookie scoring leader and Calder shoe-in Artemi Panarin, having been out since Nov. 3 with a broken clavicle, and trails Panarin by an impossible 34 points.

If he were to continue at a point per game pace, which is highly unlikely considering the length of his absence and the impending level of competition over his first NHL stretch run, McDavid would finish the season with 44 points.

That puts Jack Eichel (34 points), Dylan Larkin (33) and Max Domi (32) all out of reasonable reach for McDavid.

He won’t win the Calder, but McDavid still has 32 games to prove he’s the best first-year player in the NHL.

Would you bet against him?

(Mark Spector-Sportsnet)

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