Connor McDavid: 'Could he possibly be faster than he was last year?'
Oilers captain proves in three-goal NHL season opener he may have another gear
The rumours began in the summer.
At first, just vague mumblings out of the annual BioSteel Camp, where NHL players hit the ice and the weight room before official training season starts in September.
Some reporters found themselves wondering if Connor McDavid didn't look, if possible, faster than he had been last season.
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The first thought on hearing the news was: How is that even possible?
The hockey world, and the defencemen on 30 other NHL teams, anxiously awaited confirmation.
It came Wednesday night, during the Oilers season opener at Rogers Place, when McDavid proved to the world he has another, otherworldly, gear.
On his first shift, 29 seconds into the game, McDavid took a little pass from Leon Draisaitl at the Oilers blue-line and the track meet began. Flames defenceman Dougie Hamilton found himself too close to McDavid. His partner, T.J. Brodie, was already turning to skate back into his own zone.
A second later, with McDavid accelerating, Hamilton was already out of the play.
Another second later, at the opposing blue-line, the Oilers captain blew through the gap between the two Flames and went in alone on goalie Mike Smith, who made a great pad save.
Minutes later, McDavid beat Smith on a nifty pass from Draisaitl, and the Oilers led 1-0.
Between periods, Sportsnet host Daren Millard brought up the subject immediately.
"There's a feeling out there," he said, "That Connor McDavid is actually faster than he was last year."
"Well," said panelist Doug MacLean, "If that's the case, he's not skating anymore. He's airborne."
MacLean then summed up what that would mean.
"Most defence corps around the league are hoping that is not the case. But I'll tell you what, there's evidence tonight that he's as fast, or faster, than he was last year."
Those defencemen, the guys on the other 30 NHL teams, had their hopes dashed around the eight minute mark of the third period.
With the score unchanged and the play deep in the Oilers zone, the puck popped loose and McDavid scooped it up along the half-wall and turned on the jets.
He crossed his own blue-line. Brodie was already in no-man's land between the blue-line and centre-ice. Travis Hamonic was further back, close to the red-line.
Both are good skaters. These aren't exactly slow guys.
But it was already over.
By the time McDavid blurred past centre ice, Brodie was done.
Against any other player, Hamonic might still have had a chance.
In this case, nah, no chance. None.
McDavid was in the clear, swooped in on goal, and lifted the puck over Smith's left shoulder.
Oilers 2, Flames 0.
A third goal to complete the hat trick came in the dying minutes of the game, and gave Oilers fans the chance to litter the ice with ball caps.
After the game, coach Todd McLellan was asked about McDavid's speed and found himself, once again, trying to explain the inexplicable.
"You guys keep asking me these questions," he said. "I know you want answers. But it's what he does. He doesn't go from first to second, to third to fourth gear. He just goes from first to fourth gear, and he's gone."
A fitting description. But by no means an explanation.
Oilers defenceman Oscar Klefbom, too, was asked for his perspective.
"I know exactly how those defencemen feel in Calgary right now," he said. "I play against Connor every single day in practice. It's tough, because he makes you look silly."
It was McLellan who had to try to answer the questions posed over the summer.
"Could he possibly," a reporter asked, "be faster than he was last year?"
The coach hesitated, pondering.
"Well, Connor has to improve," he finally said. "Why not get faster?"
Indeed. Just what NHL defencemen wanted to hear.