Luke DeCock

Watching McDavid, hard to forget how close Canes came – DeCock

Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid controls the puck away from Carolina Hurricanes’ Noah Hanifin at PNC Arena in Raleigh.
Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid controls the puck away from Carolina Hurricanes’ Noah Hanifin at PNC Arena in Raleigh. NHLI via Getty Images

Jaccob Slavin knew it was Connor McDavid bearing down on him, and not only because he had to be alert every time he was on the ice at the same time as McDavid, which was often Friday night.

McDavid had pinned Slavin into the boards at the other end of the ice, and while Slavin was able to beat him back toward the Carolina Hurricanes’ net, it wasn’t by much. So McDavid, came in on the left wing with the puck, thinking about making a play, only for Slavin to deftly poke-check the puck away.

“I knew he was trying to take off so I just tried to get back as quick as I could there,” Slavin said. “He’s a very talented player. You can’t give him too much respect. You have to take away his time and space.”

A hockey prodigy, McDavid is bigger than he looks on TV and shiftier than someone his size should be. While the Hurricanes -- Slavin and Brett Pesce in particular -- did a marvelous job on him in Friday’s 2-1 win, the Edmonton Oilers’ captain still got his chances and still got his goal, for an NHL-best 60th point.

Thre’s an alternate universe somewhere in which the Hurricanes lost five games they actually won in the spring of 2015, ending up with the same odds in the draft lottery the Oilers had. Or maybe it's just that instead of landing on the Oilers' 11.5 percent chance, the ping-pong balls spit out a combination that fell within the Hurricanes' 8.5 percent chance of landing the top pick.

Nothing against Noah Hanifin, who the Hurricanes ended up taking fifth overall, but McDavid, who the Oilers took with their fourth first overall pick in six years, is a truly special and unique player, one of a chosen few who have come into the NHL in the past decade and turned their team around in short order.

McDavid has done it in Edmonton, Auston Matthews is doing it in Toronto and Nathan McKinnon did it with Colorado, even if the Avalanche has hit a skid of late – all big, strong centers you can build a team around, who dominate defenses even at an impossibly young age.

Despite their playoff drought, the Hurricanes were never quite bad enough to get decent odds at landing any of them. In those three draft years, the Hurricanes instead ended up with Hanifin (in 2015), Jake Bean and Julien Gauthier (instead of Matthews in 2016) and Elias Lindholm (instead of McKinnon in 2013).

It's a golden era of great young centers in the NHL and McDavid is the best of the bunch at the moment, with electrifying speed and quickness to go along with the size and skill. Disarmed one-on-one by Slavin in Friday's second period, he ended up sliding a wraparound chance along the goal line and off the opposite post on the same shift.

“I’m basically all ears at that point,” Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward said. “I’m waiting to hear the reaction behind me, because I can’t see it. At first, I anticipated that we just made a really good defensive play to help me out.”

McDavid broke through in the second. After going to the bench for a new stick, he outraced Hanifin and Lindholm across the blue line, dragged Lindholm to the net like a suit bag slung over his shoulder and beat Ward to tie the score 1-1 – in the process, bumping his performance bonuses this season to $850,000 with 28 games to go.

And he's doing it while serving as captain, at age 20, of a very young team that's winning for the first time.

“He plays with such an amount of speed that it makes you feel like you’re on your heels,” Ward said. “The kid’s just a special player. A very dangerous player, because he makes everyone dangerous around him. For the most part we kept him at bay, other than the goal.”

The mind staggers to think what a player like McDavid could do for the Hurricanes in this dark moment in their history, how many butts he could plant in seats, how attractive he would make the franchise to a buyer who could re-energize the market and make investments in not only the team but the community, how the Hurricanes would become an NBC regular instead of a national-TV rarity.

The Hurricanes have never really had a truly elite player, a first-choice Olympian, in the prime of his career. Ron Francis arrived late, Rod Brind'Amour and Eric Staal never really crossed the threshold – although both probed it, and Brind'Amour should be in the Hall of Fame – and Jeff Skinner is too one-dimensional to get into the conversation, barring that one dimension someday becoming truly superlative. Justin Faulk is an All-Star but not a Norris Trophy candidate at this point in his career. Maybe Hanifin will get there someday.

They never bottomed out at the right time to get that kind of player, and even in that amazingly deep 2003 draft, when they took Staal third overall, there wasn't a Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin in the bunch. They were bad in 2013 and 2015 and 2016, just not bad enough.

They never lost enough to be a big draft winner. (Going 7-4-1 in February 2015, including a win over the Oilers, did the trick that year.) Edmonton, since 2006, has lost all the time. The Oilers, with all those first overall picks, finally got one who's the best of the bunch. What a different world it would be if McDavid were here instead.

“I haven’t really thought about it that way,” Ward said. “We’re obviously pleased with who we got.”

Just like 2005, when the Hurricanes were one of three teams still in the running for Crosby when the post-lockout lottery show went to its final commercial, history chose a different path.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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