BUFFALO, N.Y. – Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel have been compared in hockey circles for years. Only one of them can be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NHL draft but their careers will be forever linked.
Even amid the hype, they’ve met on the ice but never talked to each other.
“I don’t really know him,” Eichel said of McDavid. “I’m sure we’ll meet along the way.”
McDavid and Eichel are on a crash course to meet at the world junior championship Dec. 31 in Montreal when Canada faces the United States. And they’ll be together on the road to the draft, dealing with the pressure that Nathan MacKinnon and Seth Jones encountered two years ago.
The comparisons will continue long after that, but for now Eichel is trying to drown them out and focus on his own progression. While McDavid chose the junior hockey route and will return for a third season with the OHL’s Erie Otters, Eichel will be a freshman for Boston University.
“I just try to concentrate on what I can control and myself,” Eichel said Wednesday at First Niagara Center where he’ll play in USA Hockey’s All-American Prospects Game Thursday. “There’s going to be comparisons wherever you go. I just try to focus on myself and making sure I’m doing the right things and trying to get better.”
Eichel, who doesn’t turn 18 until late October, will field questions about McDavid no matter where he plays. The native of North Chelmsford, Mass.—about 45 minutes northwest of Boston—realizes that, though it would’ve been more intense if they played in the same league.
Instead, Eichel said college hockey was a “perfect fit” for him, and especially Boston University because his parents will get a chance to see him play much more often than in recent years. He’s not worried about passing up on junior and its more professional-style schedule and thinks he’ll play 50 games this year.
“That just means more time in the weight room, getting stronger,” Eichel said. “You’re playing against bigger, stronger, older guys. … I think that was what I needed to do to take my development to the next level.”
Eichel’s game is already at the next level or else he wouldn’t be getting compared to McDavid, who is already dealing with the expectations of being the “Next One” to follow in the footsteps of Sidney Crosby and MacKinnon. Eichel had almost two points a game while with the U.S. National Team Development Program last season in Ann Arbor, Mich.
At six foot two and 194 pounds, Eichel is still filling out and believes every area of his game could use some polishing. But if fans are looking for who he wants to play like, Eichel’s models are a couple of Canadian-born, Stanley Cup- and Olympic gold-medal-winning stars.
“I think everybody idolizes Sidney Crosby,” Eichel said. “He does everything so well. If anyone’s trying to emulate him, I think it’s pretty good. I think I play pretty similar to Jeff Carter. He’s a big skating centre, likes to shoot the puck, make plays.”
If Eichel develops along the same path, he’ll justify the attention he’s getting. The biggest star among 42 prospects taking part in Thursday’s exhibition game in front of 200 NHL scouts, Eichel is someone whose presence can “raise all the players around him,” according to USA Hockey’s Jim Johannson.
Eichel’s closest competition among Americans is Boston College’s Noah Hanifin, who is expected to be the top defenceman taken in next year’s draft. But all the talk is McDavid vs. Eichel and who’s going No. 1.
“To be No. 1, obviously, it’s in anyone’s competitive nature to be No. 1,” Eichel said. “You dream about that your whole life. So if I sat here and told you that I didn’t want to be in the No. 1 pick, I think I’d be lying because I do. But I’m not going to lose sleep on it.
“Obviously there’s been plenty of great NHL players that haven’t been the No. 1 pick and have had good careers. It’s in the back of my mind, but at the end of the day it’s not the end-all, be-all.”
This is considered the deepest draft in years, so much so that NHL teams in the process of rebuilding could fairly target this group and hope to get better quickly. But Eichel insists he hasn’t studied the standings or dreamed of which jersey he’ll be putting on June 26.
“I’m sure whatever team has that pick they’ll make the decision whatever player they want,” Eichel said. “I don’t really think about it. It’s a while away, and I have a whole season to go.”
Follow @SWhyno on Twitter