HENDERSON, Nev. – Connor McDavid, a household name in the hockey world before he could legally drive, has been fielding questions of all kinds from reporters and fans over the past decade. He knows the routine.
Holding court with reporters Wednesday, a week before his ninth training camp with the Edmonton Oilers, McDavid highlighted one particular question.
“I come to this event all the time and everyone’s like, ‘When are you going to win? When are you going to win?'” a relaxed McDavid said at the annual player media tour hosted by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association.
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McDavid understands why people associate the Edmonton Oilers with the Stanley Cup, and why they wonder when’s it all going to come together for this group, if ever. McDavid, who turns 27 in January, and Leon Draisaitl, who’ll be 28 in late October, aren’t kids anymore. The learning should be over.
At the same time, as Draisaitl put it, “We’re not the only team trying to chase something here.” In the parity-filled, 32-team NHL, it’s a long, tough slog to the top of the mountain.
“We have a training camp that we have to get through,” McDavid said. “We’ve gotta get off to a good start. And there’s 82 full games before you even get back to the same position. This is a marathon, and it takes everybody. It takes a little bit of good fortune as well.”
Not only are they in the primes of their careers, but Draisaitl’s current deal has two seasons left and McDavid’s is done in three. Both could re-sign, sure, but it’s also possible this group has a limited window.
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The most productive duo since Mario and Jagr has a combined four Hart, five Pearson, and six Art Ross trophies. Last year saw McDavid amass an absurd 64 goals and 153 points, while Draisaitl recorded “just” 52 goals and 128 points. They’ve both been dominant for stretches in the playoffs, too, leading the Oilers to a total of four series victories. Yet, they don’t have any Stanley Cup Final appearances.
“We’re at that stage where we all want to win, we’re ready to win. And we’re ready to do whatever it takes to win, more importantly,” Draisaitl said, later noting how back-to-back losses to the eventual Cup champions (Colorado in 2022, Vegas in 2023) should be considered “invaluable” experiences.
General manager Ken Holland barely touched the roster in the offseason. Middle-six winger Connor Brown – McDavid, a former junior teammate, called him “tenacious, relentless on the puck” – was the club’s biggest addition. All eyes will be on the team’s defense, which is led by relatively new defenseman Mattias Ekholm, and the goaltending tandem of Stuart Skinner and Jack Campbell.
“We believe in them. They’re two very capable goalies,” McDavid said. “Skinny is a young guy who has a ceiling as high as he wants to make it, really. He’s got all the tools. I really believe that he is going to be a great goalie in this league. And Soup: I feel like he’s going to bounce back.”
Hello, Atlantic Division gauntlet
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Every year at this time, pundits and fans size up each conference and division. In those evaluations, there tends to be a clear divide between the haves and have-nots. For instance, the Central Division has two Cup contenders in Colorado and Dallas … and then six clearly inferior teams.
You can’t say the same about the Atlantic, though. It’s going to be a gauntlet.
All four 2022-23 playoff teams – Boston, Toronto, Tampa Bay, and Florida – are more than capable of punching a ticket to the postseason again. However, Ottawa, Detroit, and Buffalo are far enough along in their competitive cycles to believe a playoff berth is finally an attainable goal.
That’s seven of eight teams (sorry, Montreal) vying for a maximum five spots.
“It’s like hell,” a laughing Red Wings center Dylan Larkin said.
“Biased, but I would say it’s the best division right now,” said Panthers winger Matthew Tkachuk, who’s coming off a Hart Trophy finalist nod and MVP-caliber performance during Florida’s unexpected march to the Cup Final.
That magical 20-game run for Tkachuk featured 11 goals, four of them game-winners, and 24 points. To Matthew’s proud younger brother Brady, the Senators’ captain, this past spring “showed the hockey world what myself and the rest of my family already saw in Matthew – and that’s a superstar.”
The Tkachuks, 23 and 25, are both locked into long-term deals, so their on-ice rivalry is just beginning to heat up as Florida and Ottawa butt heads in the standings. South Florida embracing the Panthers’ run helped fuel Brady’s offseason. The power forward wants to see Ottawa go bananas.
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The Sens have a burgeoning superstar of their own in Tim Stutzle. The German leads an offense that’s suddenly deep, with Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, Claude Giroux, Josh Norris, and Vladimir Tarasenko up front, and Thomas Chabot and Jakob Chychrun pacing the back end.
“We got a taste of that in the playoff push in February, March, and April,” Brady said of 2022-23, as Ottawa missed the playoff cut line by six points.
“When we were going through that, we were riding the highs and we were in the lows a little too long. But towards the end of it, we learned it’s a new day the next day. You can’t focus on anything else but the task at hand, whether it’s being dialed in at practice or the game. We’ve learned and we’re ready to show everybody what we’ve learned and we’re ready for that next step.”
Detroit and Buffalo are on a similar trajectory following a lean period. The Sabres’ fan base, which has endured the NHL’s longest playoff drought, is uniquely tortured. Sniper Tage Thompson was 13 when the club last made it.
“We were knocking on the door last year and missed the playoffs by a point,” said Thompson, now 25 years old and chasing his first 50-goal season. “That left a bitter taste in all our mouths. Now we know what we’re capable of.
“Anything short of making the playoffs is definitely a letdown.”
Praising Patrice ‘Mr. Perfect’ Bergeron
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There aren’t many NHLers with a 100% approval rating among other players.
But Patrice Bergeron, who retired in late July after 19 glorious seasons with the Bruins, is undoubtedly on that very short list. Like retired goalie Henrik Lundqvist, Bergeron gives off Mr. Perfect vibes: a Hockey Hall of Fame-level talent who’s described as a kind, genuine, universally respected person off the ice and just so happens to also have GQ cover-model looks.
“He’s just perfect,” Bruins teammate Charlie McAvoy said. “There’s no such thing. It doesn’t exist. But we can let it exist (for a moment).”
Bergeron’s arguably the greatest two-way player of all time, having set a record for Selke Trophies. He claimed Nos. 5 and 6 in his final two seasons.
Brian Babineau / Getty Images
Rivals gush about his hockey IQ and defensive timing, three-zone chemistry with longtime linemates Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, and nightly habit of dominating in the faceoff circle. The right-handed center, listed at 6-foot-1 and 196 pounds, finished with a 58.9% success rate on 22,447 draws.
“Every time we’d play Boston, my back was so sore from faceoffs. He’s just so strong,” Larkin said. The divisional foe later noted Bergeron “was never out of position. He always had Marchand and Pastrnak flying. And then he’s just such a nice guy. He’s a class act.”
“I don’t think I ever made him mad, but he’d be one of those guys where if you’d piss him off you’d want to apologize because he’s so nice,” Larkin said.
Bergeron’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he’s probably deserving of another honor. “They might as well just rename the Selke,” said Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar, himself twice crowned the NHL’s best defensive forward.
McAvoy put it simply: “Change the Selke Trophy to the Bergeron.”
Smilin’ Mario: The player media tour is a trip for rookie attendees. Players bop from station to station for promotional video shoots, social-media content creation, and sit-downs with reporters. There’s a ton of smiling, which created a conundrum for San Jose Sharks defenseman Mario Ferraro. “I’m in the process of trying to get it fixed,” a grinning Ferraro said when asked about missing multiple front teeth. “I was supposed to have surgery last week, but I held it off. I wanted to make sure my face wasn’t blowing up for the interviews.” Ferraro isn’t the first NHLer to lose a few then gain notoriety for the old-school look (see: Brent Burns, Drew Doughty). The repair work is more complicated than you’d think. “If you put the (replacement) teeth in and you get hit again, it can actually break your jaw,” Ferraro said.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) September 12, 2023
Friendly fire: The Red Wings are one of four teams off to Sweden in November as part of the NHL’s Global Series. Naturally, Larkin was asked about the overseas trip. And, naturally, Larkin viewed the topic as an opening to take a friendly jab at not one but two groups of teammates. “I’ve played with a lot of Swedes. They’re kind of like guys from Minnesota. They think (their home state/country is) the best place on Earth,” the captain said with a laugh. I thought that was a clever line from the Michigan native. You can picture it: A Minnesotan yammering on to his teammates about pond hockey and cabins on the lake, and a Swede annoyingly pumping up beautiful Stockholm and the tradition of fika.
78 games played. 78 points.
From signing a long-term contract to losing close friends, Dylan Larkin has fought through changes. @iamtrevort speaks with the Captain before his last home game. #LGRW | @ThinkFordFirst pic.twitter.com/FznRbSH6LQ
— Bally Sports Detroit (@BallySportsDET) April 10, 2023
Hit piece: NHLers spend their downtime in different ways. Golf is a ubiquitous hobby. The league’s dads are consumed by their kids’ activities. Some, like Tampa Bay defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, love to read. Others, including the Golden Knights’ William Carrier, love to fix things around the house. It’s unlikely anyone has a more fitting hobby than Jacob Trouba, who this offseason literally delivered body checks to create art. The New York Rangers captain and open-ice hit aficionado recently shared a few of his art-of-hitting paintings and is considering auctioning off a piece for charity one day. “The fun part about it for me,” Trouba said of his unique artistic process, “is that it can be one hit away from being done or it can be 15 hits away from being done.”
JACOB TROUBA IS MAKING ART WITH HOCKEY EQUIPMENT I REPEAT JACOB TROUBA IS MAKING ART WITH HOCKEY EQUIPMENT pic.twitter.com/daRq6CZnUA
— Jamet Debrusk 2.0 (@KingRussoRoma) September 9, 2023
Captain’s comment: Defenseman Jake Sanderson’s contract extension ($64 million over eight years starting in 2024-25) split people into two camps. Those who watch the Senators closely and are familiar with the nuances of Sanderson’s game strongly believe the deal will prove to be team-friendly sooner rather than later. People who barely watch the Sens think it’s an overpay for a guy with 77 career NHL games. “For the people that don’t know,” Tkachuk said with a straight face, “they’ll know soon enough.” That sounds like a warning, Tkachuk was told. Again serious, the captain replied, “Yeah, it is.” Well, you can’t accuse Tkachuk of not sticking up for his teammates – and boy does it seem like the Sens have a chip on their shoulder.
Jake Sanderson on why he chose a long-term deal with Ottawa.
“You just see you see the chemistry in the in the locker room it’s something that will be here for a while. And I think we’re going to win within the next couple years. We know that. And I want to be here for it.”
— Ian Mendes (@ian_mendes) September 7, 2023
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John Matisz is theScore’s senior NHL writer. Follow John on Twitter (@MatiszJohn) or contact him via email (email@example.com).
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