Two once-in-a-generation talents, but only one spot at the top of the NHL draft board. Much more than gold is on the line for Eichel and McDavid as they get set for their epic world junior showdown
Chairs and a podium. That was
Connor McDavid’s first victory of the season in his battle for the hearts and minds of the hockey world with
Jack Eichel. Both 2015 draft phenoms had the opportunity to play at First Niagara Center, the home of the Buffalo Sabres, in the fall, and both were incredibly impressive. Eichel, who went first, posted two points and earned MVP honors at the All-American Prospects Game, an annual showdown featuring the top draft-eligible prospects from the United States. A month later, McDavid’s Erie Otters hosted the Niagara IceDogs in a special Ontario League game that ended with him ravaging the competition for four points in an 8-4 stomping. When it was time to meet the press, McDavid got a podium, and the scribes were seated. Eichel had to stand for his post-game scrum.
But forget furniture one-upmanships for a moment and consider the one and only chance for a showdown between the two generational talents: the World Junior Championship. McDavid, whose involvement in the tournament got a little sketchy when he broke his hand in a November fight, will nonetheless be the centerpiece for a Canadian squad that has double pressure to win it all, since the tournament is being held in Montreal and Toronto and the team hasn’t won gold since 2009. Eichel was one of Team USA’s best players last year and will take on a similar role for the Americans again. McDavid was a bit player last season, but his boys did win the head-to-head match against the Americans, though his draft mate has bigger things in mind this time.
“I don’t think it’s about getting revenge on Canada, but just looking forward to the tournament in general,” Eichel said. “We underachieved last year, and we had a really good team. We have a good core, coach (Mark) Osiecki has been great…We’re really excited about this season.” In a perfect world, Canada and the U.S. will meet twice over the holidays: once, as per the schedule, on New Year’s Eve in Montreal during round-robin play and then again in Toronto, where the medal round is being held. Is a rematch for gold too much to ask? The North American squads will have loaded rosters, so it wouldn’t be a shock. And for the sake of draft storylines, two McDavid vs. Eichel games are better than one. With McDavid in the OHL and Eichel in the NCAA with Boston University, that’ll be it for head-to-head action. Not that the boys are wrapped up in each other’s successes. “I hear stuff, but I don’t go out of my way to find out,” McDavid said. “That’s how it has to be. I have to focus on my season.” Which is almost a shame, because they’re both dynamic, insane talents. McDavid was averaging nearly three points per game before his injury and provided an instant classic moment in Buffalo when he used a one-handed deke at full speed to put the puck through the legs of Niagara defender Vincent Dunn. “Once a night or more,” said Erie coach Kris Knoblauch, “he’ll do something where you say to yourself, ‘Never thought of that before.’ ” That’s the main reason McDavid is seen as having a slight edge over Eichel in the race for No. 1 this summer. The former seems unstoppable most of the time, and since the Otters have added him to the penalty kill this season, the opposition gets no respite from that wicked offensive mind of his, even if he tries to downplay it. “It’s not a lot of thinking, it kind of has to be all instinct,” McDavid said. “It’s just creativity and trying to make different plays.” Eichel is no slouch in that department either. A bit bigger than McDavid, he’s also playing against older, stronger, more experienced competition in college. Not that those lettermen have had much luck stopping him lately. Former NHLer Mike Grier coached Eichel at the All-American Prospects Game and also skated with him during the summer at Boston University, where he also played as a Terrier back in the day. He put Eichel in pretty heady company when it comes to talent. “When you see him out there with the other best draft-eligible kids and you see the different gear he has that no one else does, the way he gets through the neutral zone and picks up pucks and makes plays, it’s impressive,” Grier said. “He’s got confidence, which is great. When you see the elite skill players in the NHL like Patrick Kane or Jagr, there’s never any concern or pause when they have the puck. They think they’re going to make the play, beat the guy, find the open man – they never panic. He has that trait.” So if either player was trying to tamp down expectations for the world juniors, the rest of their amateur seasons and even how they will fare as NHL rookies, the toothpaste is probably out of the tube already. Neither player earned a medal at the world juniors in Sweden last year, but gold for either in Toronto would be huge for their respective nations. And the draft talk will not abate. “I guess it’s just part of this experience,” Eichel said. “I try not to think about it. The 2015 draft is a while away and I’m just trying to enjoy myself and keep getting better.” Eichel is anchoring the top line of a Boston University team that struggled mightily last year but has come alive since his arrival. And he can look forward to not only the world juniors, but also the Frozen Four national championship as a mission and the Beanpot tournament before that in February. If the hockey gods smile, his Terriers will meet Boston College in the final (Harvard and Northeastern are the other two teams in the city’s classic), where freshman defenseman Noah Hanifin plays. He’s No. 3 with a bullet in the 2015 draft rankings, and his Eagles have won the vaunted Beanpot five years straight. Meanwhile, McDavid will try to steer his Otters to an OHL title and a Memorial Cup. The injury will derail his gross point total, but his points per game will still be gaudy. And for both players, every stride will be monitored by the hockey world.
This feature appears in the Jan. 5 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.