Oilers star Connor McDavid’s quest to become the best NHL player starts on the ice

Christian Dedonato rarely sees Connor McDavid during the offseason, at least until midday. McDavid is too busy working out at the gym or keeping fit on the ice.

When longtime friends get together to skate, surf, kick a soccer ball or throw a baseball, Dedonato still sees the strength of McDavid, who has led a distinguished, if frustrating, NHL career for seven years.

“I see him doing these exercises and he won’t stop until he gets them perfect,” Dedonato said. “Even if you play baseball or surf, everything has to be perfect, and I think that shows on the ice and shows in his personality – his commitment.”

Knowing McDavid for over a decade before they entered high school, Dedonato isn’t surprised by the success of the Edmonton Oilers captain. What he knows better than anyone is what McDavid sacrifices off the ice to become the best player in the league.

At 25, McDavid is close to being the league’s leading scorer for a fourth time and has led the Oilers to a third straight playoff berth. Its dazzling performance is the culmination of decades of work to prepare it for peak performance when it matters most.

“He wants to be the best,” said Dedonato, a Brock University hockey player who lives less than 10 minutes from McDavid during the off-season. “He knows it takes a lot of work to be the best and he has worked all his life to be the best.”

The playoffs became his testing ground because McDavid did just about everything during the regular season. He is double Heart Trophy Winner as league MVP, three-time selection by his peers for the Ted Lindsay/Lester B. Pearson Most Outstanding Player Award, and five times exceeded 100 points.

Despite all this praise, he never made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, and the Oilers only won one playoff series during his tenure in 2017.

“There may be some frustration, and that’s natural,” said former NHL forward Matt Hendrix, who played with McDavid for two seasons from 2015 to 2017. “But then after saying that, he just keeps going out and performing like he does in every game. It’s incredible.”

Hendrix observed that immediately after McDavid was selected first in the NHL Entry Draft, the so-called “Next” wanted to put the Oilers on his shoulders and “be the center of attention and the reason they came out of those dark days.” It hasn’t changed.

“Obviously I want to play well and be as helpful to the team as possible,” McDavid said. “When I’m at my best, I do a lot.”

McDavid was at his best when Edmonton needed him. Since the Oilers were eliminated from the playoffs on March 4, McDavid has averaged over 21 minutes on the ice and scored 14 goals and 25 assists for 39 points in 24 games. They won 16 out of 24 games and qualified for the playoffs.

“At my best, I skate, have the puck and play aggressively,” McDavid said. “That’s when I’m at my best.”

What’s harder to see is how McDavid has grown as a versatile player.

“He is determined to win. He put a lot of focus on some areas that our staff when we got together (recently) put a lot of focus on what is his work related to our own purpose,” 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 players with higher minutes to do a lot of things and take on a little more responsibility.”

McDavid has also spent the past few years hardening his biggest weakness.

After being selected first in the 2015 draft, he fought for the faceoff. McDavid won just 42% of the draws in his first three seasons and now has a success rate of over 54%, 21st in the league.

Much of that is thanks to McDavid’s off-season work with former winger Gary Roberts, who has become a high-performing coach, and at the annual BioSteel camp. He also practices on his own, sometimes skipping rounds of golf with buddies to work on his craft.

“For me, those characteristics are what separate the really good players from the great ones,” Hendrix said. “Connor from day one, I knew he had it. He has a game plan. Everything has a purpose.”

Throughout the season, McDavid’s lead, combined with fellow MVP Leon Draisaitl, reminds defenseman Duncan Keith of his Chicago days alongside stars Jonathan Taves and Patrick Kane.

“Kane, Toews, Draisaitl, McDavid – these guys are great because they are competitive and want to be the best,” Keith said. “Connor and Leon absorb and take on a lot of responsibility because they feel the pressure. They want to win here.”

McDavid’s drive to win even seeps into his social life, where he only drinks light or gluten-free beer and clear spirits along with wine – when he drinks at all. His healthy eating is a job 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a week.

After nearly three years of watching the young center, general manager Ken Holland learned a thing or two about McDavid and his ability to lead the Oilers to the playoffs and one day the Cup.

“He competes every night, he competes every day, he competes all off-season,” Holland said. “He trains all season. He is a focused, motivated athlete. It competes on both fronts. I think he’s doing everything he can to make sure we’re successful.”

— Stephen Wyno, Associated Press