BROSSARD, Que. – You’d be excused if you were under the mistaken impression that Jack Eichel is the only draft eligible player on the American side for this World Junior Championship. Heck, you’d be excused if you were under the impression Eichel were the only player on the U.S. team period.
But as the Americans enter a pivotal preliminary round game to decide the winner of Group A New Year’s Eve, they do so with a team that has three other players along with Eichel eligible for the 2015 NHL draft and one player – Arizona-born phenom Auston Matthews – who is eligible for 2016.
So with all the talk surrounding the Eichel-Connor McDavid showdown, it provides American defensemen Noah Hanifin, Zach Werenski and Brandon Carlo the opportunity to make a statement of their own when it comes to their draft status. Not that any of them seems to be concerned with it, at least on the surface.
“The positive with this group is you wouldn’t even know,” said American coach Mark Osiecki. “You wouldn’t know going in the tournament, you wouldn’t know going into the game that it’s their draft year coming up. They don’t approach it that way. Anytime they come in to talk to the coaches, they’re talking about team. They’ve handled it very maturely.”
Truth be told, a little too much has been made of the McDavid-Eichel showdown at this tournament. As has been proved time and again, this is a tournament for 18- and 19-year-old players. It’s not that Eichel and McDavid have been ineffective, but the older players such as Anthony Duclair, Max Domi, Dylan Larkin and Hudson Fasching are the players who are going to be the real difference makers in this tournament. Sidney Crosby, as good as he was, was a secondary player in 2005. Mario Lemieux barely made a blip in the tournament as a 17-year-old and both Crosby and Lemieux were better players at this age than McDavid and Eichel.
That’s not to say that this group of players is not special. Eichel, Hanifin (Boston College) and Werenski (University of Michigan) are all true freshmen in U.S. college hockey and they’re playing against far older and more mature players than their major junior counterparts. And the fact that Eichel is the captain of the American team and is among the leading scorers in U.S. college hockey with Boston University proves he’s a special talent. And Osiecki acknowledged that all the pressure on Eichel has taken the pressure off his other players. It takes a very mature player to be able to carry that responsibility. It’s also no coincidence that USA Hockey chose Eichel to be Matthews’ roommate for the tournament.
“I actually think he relishes that,” Osiecki said. “We don’t want him to have to shoulder everything, but he wants that and he embraces it. A great example was (when the American camp in Boston) a team meal that was a little bit late and he was picking up the phone. He knew the catering people at BU, but he picked up the phone and took charge of it. The maturity factor has been unbelievable.”
For Hanifin, it will be an opportunity to measure himself against the top two players in the draft in Eichel and McDavid. Hanifin has emerged as the consensus No. 3 prospect behind them, but there is still a lot of hockey to be played. Of course, one game on one night will be a factor in draft position, but it will be only one piece of a huge amount of information scouts will have on all three of the players. Or as Eichel himself put it: “You’re so much more focused on winning the tournament than something that’s going to occur months down the road.”
“For me, I want to have a good game not to put myself in their group or whatever,” Hanifin said. “I’m just trying to play well so we can win and I can help the team do that.”
And in the end, if all the draft prospects are able to do that, then where they are selected will take care of itself. The draft aside, it should be an interesting game with both teams having given up only one goal so far in three tournament games. Both teams are focused intensely on puck possession and there will only be one puck out there to split between them. Which team gets the puck first and manages it better should be the team that has the best chance to win the game and move on to what should be an easier quarterfinal game against the fourth-place team in Group B Friday night.
“Our best defense is maintaining the puck,” Osiecki said. “If we don’t have the puck, how quickly can we get it back? We haven’t had many takeaways but we’ve had the puck a lot, so we haven’t had to worry about hounding the puck down and trying to find a way to get it back.”