Connor McDavid’s drive to be NHL’s best player starts off the ice

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EDMONTON, Alberta — Christian Dedonato doesn’t see Connor McDavid much in the offseason, 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 offseason. “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 offseason 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 defenseman 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 center 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 offseason,” 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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    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

    Andrei Kuzmenko
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

    Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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    DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

    Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

    Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

    Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

    The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

    Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

    Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

    Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

    Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

    In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

    Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

    UP NEXT

    Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

    Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

    Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

    Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

    Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

    Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

    The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

    The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

    Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

    He found a little of both.

    The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

    “I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

    Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

    His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

    The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

    “It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

    The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

    Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

    Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

    “That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

    Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

    Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

    “We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

    Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

    Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

    “It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

    UP NEXT

    Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

    Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.