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EDMONTON — Hundreds of teen talents come out of the stands at each NHL draft, but for four players in Saturday’s game between the Oilers and Maple Leafs, there was no waiting.
Connor McDavid, John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins blazed the trail to the stage in their respective years and thus have a kind of unspoken bond about shared experiences.
“I’m not sure we have a bond, but every year the top two, three, four heavily scrutinized guys go through that,” Matthews said. “They’re watched closely by scouts and everything. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with it.
“I’d say Connor probably got it a lot more than others with, obviously, who he is as a player and how good he was since he was a young kid. Maybe we all went through similar things in our draft year. John and I had some funny stories here and there, though he was in junior and I was in Switzerland.”
Indeed, the decision to play his draft year overseas was a benefit to Matthews, who had already been under the radar with the U.S. National Development program and then was able to advance his game against men in Zurich. His puck control and shot were a revelation when he came to the NHL.
McDavid was followed right from his days with the York-Simcoe Express and then the Toronto Marlboros of the GTHL. In 2011–12, his 209 points in 88 games as a minor midget made him GTHL player of the year and he was granted Exceptional Player status by Hockey Canada to be drafted in 2012 by Erie of the OHL, the third following Tavares and Aaron Ekblad.
Though he’d likely hoped for the Leafs to win the lottery in his draft year, he brought his tremendous skating and offensive talents to an Oilers team that was opening a new arena and longed for an heir to Wayne Gretzky.
That has made the spotlight harsher on McDavid, despite his Hart Trophy in 2017 and being voted winner of the Ted Lindsay Award by his peers twice. He goes into Saturday’s game as the league’s top scorer with 57 points, just ahead of teammate Leon Draisaitl.
Comparisons to Matthews, separated by barely a year in age, and the two being young faces in Canadian hockey hotbeds should spice up the game. “Maybe some of that,” McDavid said of their comparable markets. “Mats has gone through a lot of different stuff (including unwelcome attention regarding a brush with the law last summer in Scottsdale, Ariz.), and he’s handled the media really well.
“I know him a little bit, because we have the same agency and through all-star games and stuff like that.”
The Leaf whom McDavid will likely see the most on Saturday is Tavares, who often is matched up against the opposition’s top centre at home and on the road now that Nazem Kadri was traded to Colorado.
“Tavares is a big, strong guy, Kadri a little bit more aggressive physically,” McDavid said. “Tavares can score, so he poses that challenge in your end so you have to find a way to shut him down.”
Other than when the Devils play Edmonton with their three No. 1 overalls Taylor Hall (2010), Nico Hischier (2017) and Jack Hughes (2019), Toronto and Edmonton have the oldest members of that exclusive club.
It’s now been more than a decade since Tavares made the walk from his seat at the Bell Centre in Montreal to lead off the draft.
“We don’t think about that a whole lot, but it was a great honour to be in that position,” Tavares said. “You look at the list of players and it’s just incredible. You have a lot of belief from a franchise and you try to make the most of it.”
Four first overall picks in Saturday’s Toronto-Edmonton game:
John Tavares, ’09
Hometown: Oakville, Ont.
777 GP, 332-402-734
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, ’11
Hometown: Burnaby, B.C.
567 GP, 153-247-400
Connor McDavid, ’15
Hometown: Richmond Hill, Ont.
321 GP, 148-281-429
Auston Matthews, ’16
Hometown: Scottsdale, Ariz.
245 GP, 130-109-239
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019