Connor McDavid, hockey's best player, finally gets a chance to win a Stanley Cup championship (2024)

Sherry Bassin sees the intense look on Connor McDavid's face during warmups and knows the best hockey player in the world is going to have one of those games.

Sherry Bassin sees the intense look on Connor McDavid's face during warmups and knows the best hockey player in the world is going to have one of those games.

He noticed it before the clinching game that sent the Edmonton Oilers to the Stanley Cup Final, when McDavid scored less than five minutes in and set up another goal not long after. That ability to take over started long ago, before he reached the pinnacle of the sport, and Bassin saw it up close as owner of the Ontario Hockey League's Erie Otters when McDavid played there.

“People talk about will to win,” Bassin said. "Everybody has a will to win. McDavid’s will to prepare to win is unbelievable. ... He has expectations of himself that are above and beyond."

The biggest expectation is an NHL championship, and hoisting the Stanley Cup is the only thing McDavid wants after piling up individual accolades, including being a three-time league MVP and five-time leading scorer.

In the final for the first time in his nine NHL seasons, McDavid and the Oilers are underdogs against the Florida Panthers. They are counting on the face of the league to lead them to the their first title since 1990.

"McDavid will be at the forefront of it all," said Mark Messier, who captained Edmonton's last Cup-winning team 34 years ago. “You make your money during the regular season, and you make your name during the playoffs, so whoever isn’t aware about Connor McDavid at this point will certainly be aware of him after the series."

McDavid will somehow need to break through Florida's stingy defense that has stifled opponents throughout the playoffs. Of course, overcoming challenges is nothing new for the 27-year-old from Newmarket, Ontario.

97

Dave Brown walked into Herbert H. Carnegie Centennial Centre in North York to scout prospects for the upcoming OHL draft, players born in 1995. A player wearing No. 97 stood out, and a real-life version of Abbott and Costello's “Who's on first?” sketch followed among he and his Erie colleagues.

“Who’s that guy, 97?” Brown said he asked. “They’re like, ‘He’s a ’97.’ I said, ‘That’s what I want to know, who’s No. 97?’ And they're like, ‘He’s born in 1997, you can’t draft him.”

On the ice with players two years older, McDavid was the best of the bunch. Granted exceptional status to be drafted at 15, he was also head and shoulders above the rest at the junior level after the Otters took him with the first pick in 2012.

During an exhibition game, Bassin saw McDavid get the puck at center ice and told those sitting next to him to “say goodnight.” McDavid deked around a defenseman and beat the goalie with a highlight-reel goal.

“They looked at me and said, ‘How did you know that?’” Bassin recalled. “I said, ‘Because I’ve seen it 100 times.’”

THE STAGE

McDavid's sublime skill was on display the other day against the Dallas Stars when he made an incredible individual effort to score. He was the best player in the game by a mile when his team needed it the most — and now the Oilers need it even more.

“He was flying all over the ice, and I would expect more of that in the finals,” said Washington forward Dylan Strome, a good friend of McDavid's dating to their time as teammates in Erie. “He’s the best player in the world, and I truly believe he rises to the occasion when it comes to it.”

Strome is not alone among those who expect the Cup final to be a showcase for McDavid, a tour de force for someone who has been building for this moment all his life.

“I expect him to do his thing,” said Detroit's Alex DeBrincat, who had 104 points the season he played with McDavid in Erie. “He’s very consistent at what he does, and he takes over the game pretty much every time. I’m excited to watch. Obviously it’s a big stage, but I think he’s definitely a guy who can handle it.”

After lottery balls bouncing the way they did in 2015 landed McDavid in Edmonton, far from the limelight of Toronto, Chicago or New York, this is a chance for McDavid to do what greats in other sports have done, the likes of Patrick Mahomes in the NFL or LeBron James in the NBA, to thrive with a championship on the line.

“He is the most talented player that I’ve ever seen play the game, that I’ve ever played against,” said retired defenseman P.K. Subban, who along with Messier is now an ESPN analyst. “I think he’s going to show the world how great he is.”

EARLY GREATNESS

Jay McKee joined the Erie staff under Kris Knoblauch — now the Oilers coach who keyed their turnaround after being hired in November — for McDavid's final junior season. Asked now if he thought McDavid would be this good, the 14-year NHL veteran laughs.

“He was doing things on the ice and at practice every day I just have never seen a player do before,” McKee said. “I’ve just never seen someone with his abilities. And it’s not just his speed, not just his shot. The agility combined with his speed and just everything he did was so unique to the game and unseen before that, yeah, I did expect that he would have the success he’s having.”

Since McDavid entered the league, no one has scored more points during the regular season than his 982. Teammate Leon Draisaitl is second with 841.

“Two of the best players in the world," Florida defenseman Brandon Montour said. "They’ve shown it their whole career.”

But they have not yet gotten the chance to show it in a final, to win four of seven games and get to drink out of the Stanley Cup. The Panthers are the favorites, but they will need to contain McDavid.

“You love to see a guy with his abilities on the stage like that," Brown said. "I think we’re probably going to see the best version of Connor McDavid that we can see.”

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AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, contributed.

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://www.apnews.com/hub/NHL

Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press

Connor McDavid, hockey's best player, finally gets a chance to win a Stanley Cup championship (2024)
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