EDMONTON — Christian Dedonato doesn’t see Connor McDavid much in the off-season, at least not until at least mid-afternoon. McDavid is too busy working out in the gym or staying sharp on the ice.
When the longtime friends get together to skate, surf, kick a soccer ball around or throw a baseball, Dedonato still sees an intensity in McDavid, now seven years into a standout if frustrating NHL career.
“I see him do these skill drills and he won’t stop until he gets it perfect,” Dedonato said. “Even going to throw a baseball around or surfing, everything just has to be perfect, and I think that shows on the ice and shows in his personality — his commitment.”
Knowing McDavid for more than a decade before the two entered high school, Dedonato isn’t surprised by the success of the Edmonton Oilers captain. What he knows better than most is how much McDavid sacrifices off the ice in his drive to be the best player in the league.
At 25, McDavid is on pace to be the league’s top scorer for the fourth time and led the Oilers to a third consecutive playoff appearance. His dazzling play is the culmination of decades of work designed to prepare him to be at peak performance when it matters most.
“He wants to be the best,” said Dedonato, a hockey player at Brock University who lives less than 10 minutes from McDavid during the off-season. “He knows it’s going to take a lot of work to be the best, and he’s been working his entire life to be the best.”
The playoffs are now his proving ground because McDavid has done just about everything during the regular season. He is a two-time Hart Trophy winner as league MVP, a three-time pick by his peers for the Ted Lindsay/Lester B. Pearson Award as most outstanding player and five times has surpassed the 100-point mark.
For all those accolades, he has never reached the Stanley Cup Final and the Oilers have only won one playoff series in his tenure, back in 2017.
“There’s probably a level of frustration, which is natural,” said retired NHL forward Matt Hendricks, who played with McDavid for two seasons from 2015-17. “But then, saying that, he just keeps coming out and performing the way he does every game. It’s incredible.”
Hendricks noticed right after McDavid was picked first in the NHL draft the so-called “Next One” wanted to put the Oilers on his shoulders and “be the focal point and the reason that they came out of those dark days.” That has not changed.
“Obviously I want to play well and contribute to the team as much as I can,” McDavid said. “When I’m at my best, I contribute a lot.”
McDavid was at his best when Edmonton needed him. Since the Oilers fell out of playoff position March 4, McDavid has averaged more than 21 minutes of ice time and put up 14 goals and 25 assists for 39 points in 24 games. They’ve won 16 of 24 games to clinch a playoff spot.
“Me at my best would be skating, having the puck, playing aggressive,” McDavid said. “That’s kind of when I’m at my best.”
What’s harder to see is how McDavid has grown as an all-around player.
“He’s driven to win. He has put a lot of emphasis in some of the areas that our staff when we’ve come together (recently) has put a lot of emphasis on, which is his work back to our own end,” said coach Jay Woodcroft, who was promoted from the minors when Dave Tippett was fired in February. “For me, we’re asking some of our higher-minute players to do a lot of things and assume a little bit more responsibility.”
McDavid has also spent the past several years shoring up his biggest weakness.
After getting picked first in the 2015 draft, he struggled on faceoffs. McDavid won just 42% of draws his first three seasons and is now over a 54% success rate, which ranks 21st in the league.
Much of that is thanks to the work McDavid does in the off-season with retired forward Gary Roberts, who has become a high performance trainer, and at the annual BioSteel camp. He also does his own training, sometimes passing up a round of golf with buddies to work on his craft.
“For me it’s those characteristics are what separate really, really good hockey players from great hockey players,” Hendricks said. “Connor from Day One, I knew that he had that. He has a game plan. Everything has a purpose.”
During the season, McDavid’s leadership combined with fellow MVP Leon Draisaitl reminds defenceman Duncan Keith of his days in Chicago alongside stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
“Kane, Toews, Draisaitl, McDavid, those guys are where they’re at because they’re competitive and they want to be the best,” Keith said. “Connor and Leon absorb and take a lot of responsibility because they feel the pressure. They want to win here.”
McDavid’s desire to win even bleeds into his social life, where he drinks only light or gluten free beer and clear liquor along with wine — when he even drinks at all. His healthy diet is a 24/7/365 effort.
Almost three years into watching the young centre up close, general manager Ken Holland has learned a thing or two about McDavid and his ability to carry the Oilers to the playoffs and, one day, the Cup.
“He competes every night, he competes every day, he competes all the off-season,” Holland said. “He trains all season. He’s a focused, motivated athlete. He’s competing both directions. I think that he’s doing everything he can for us to have success.”
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Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press