BUFFALO - Because Jack Eichel went the college route and Connor McDavid played major junior, the rivalry between the top two prospects in the 2015 draft has been a little abstract this season. Sure, the pair met once at the world juniors, but that was it.
Eichel and Noah Hanifin, on the other hand, have a much richer history together - sometimes as teammates and sometimes as arch-rivals.
Both born and raised in New England, Eichel and Hanifin first played against each other when they were about 10 or 11. They were teammates at USA Hockey's National Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., and on this year's world junior team. But with Eichel at Boston University and Hanifin at Boston College, they faced off against each other again as part of a cracking college hockey rivalry.
“Noah brings out the best in me," Eichel said at the draft combine. "He's a good friend of mine and it's great competition playing against him."
Hanifin got better as Boston College's season went on and despite being a freshman defenseman, he was only five points off the team scoring lead. Not bad for a kid who was still 17 until late January. Eichel has seen plenty of the poised, mobile D-man and admits that his buddy is not an easy match-up.
“He's a great skater, which makes it tough for all forwards to play against him," Eichel said. "He's really smart and a great puckmover, so I think just taking time and space away.”
Ironically, Hanifin had a similar solution for handling Eichel, the Hobey Baker Award winner who helped the Terriers get to the national championship final.
“Probably try to limit his time and space," he said. "Keep him to the outside.”
Because Hanifin played against McDavid at the world juniors and Eichel during the NCAA season, he has a rather unique perspective on the two phenoms. And why not ask the best blueline prospect in the draft about the two best forwards available?
“Connor's crafty in the corners," Hanifin said. "He's very good on his edges, spinning in the corners, whereas Jack is a powerful north-south guy who will beat you with his speed if he needs to.”
The Boston College blueliner admitted that all the press given to Eichel and McDavid this season has been motivating for him.
“The type of role I want to play in the NHL some day is a defenseman who can play against highly skilled forwards like that," he said. "Connor and Jack are both great kids and great players. All the attention they've got this year, they deserved.”
This was a tremendous season for college hockey in Boston, with Hanifin and Eichel leading the way. There was also Jimmy Vesey (Nashville) at Harvard and Kevin Roy (Anaheim) at Northeastern, paving the way for another excellent Beanpot tournament.
Since Hanifin's Eagles were knocked out of the trophy race by Northeastern, he had told me at the time that he hoped Eichel would win. Sure enough, the Terriers superstar drew a penalty in overtime and then assisted on the game-winning goal by Bruins prospect Matt Grzelcyk.
And of course Eichel then got his team to the Frozen Four title game before losing to conference rival Providence. Hanifin's Eagles were in a bit of rebuild year and new commits such as Colin White and Jeremy Bracco (both 2015 prospects as well) will bolster the squad. If Hanifin comes back, they may be in the same lofty position that Boston U. found itself in this season. Until then, the Terrier has bragging rights.
“I can't really chirp him because they made it further than us," Hanifin said. "But it's nice; we're competitive guys and now we can settle down and be friendly again.”
Until their paths cross in the NHL, that is.