It’s rare that you get to see the debut of a generational type of player. It’s even more rare when you get to see two of them make their debuts on the same night, as we will tonight with McDavid and Eichel. The only thing better is if the NHL had arranged for the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres to play one another Thursday. Come to think of it, why didn’t it do that? Alas, we’ll have to all wait until Dec. 6 for that one.
There will be games Thursday in St. Louis, where the Oilers face the Blues, and in Buffalo, where the Sabres host the Ottawa Senators. But make no mistake. Thursday night is all about McDavid, and to a slightly lesser extent, Eichel. When the network carrying the game is hyping its McDavidcam, it’s a pretty big deal. Meanwhile in Buffalo, fans will be able to chow down during the game on an egg-and-guacamole-topped cheeseburger called the “Eike Daddy.”
Almost nobody is talking about how this will be the debut of Anton Slepyshev, who will start his NHL career Thursday as McDavid’s right winger. Fewer are talking about how Dan Bylsma will be back behind an NHL bench or how Evander Kane might do in his new surroundings. Heck, even the Sabres biggest off-season acquisition, Ryan O’Reilly is taking a backseat in this one.
We haven’t seen a day like this in exactly 10 years and three days, which is exactly the amount of time that has elapsed since Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin made their debuts on the same night. The night of Oct. 5, 2005, Ovechkin scored the first two of his 475 career goals in a 3-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. That same night, Crosby earned the first of his 853 career points with an assist on a third-period goal by Mark Recchi in a 5-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. Neither has disappointed since.
And so it goes for McDavid and Eichel, who will begin their careers as the most hyped pair of rookies ever to enter the league…at least until the next two phenoms come along. And perhaps the biggest chore each of them and those around them will have this season is managing expectations. Consider that former Devils super scout David Conte ranked McDavid as the best prospect he has seen in his 30-year scouting career, placing him at the top of a list that includes Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Crosby, Ovechkin, Pavel Bure and Teemu Selanne. Wayne Gretzky said McDavid is the best prospect to come along in the past 30 years and Steven Stamkos declared this summer that McDavid is a better player than he is, not better at the same age, better right now.
But what if Eichel turns out to be just as good? And that is a distinct possibility here. Eichel did nothing during the pre-season to suggest that he can’t go toe-to-toe with McDavid and perhaps even come out on top in their first seasons in the NHL. In a way, Eichel has the benefit of coming into the NHL with less hype and expectation. But anyone who has watched him play in college hockey knows deep down that Eichel has a chance to be every bit as good as McDavid in the long run.
Players of this ilk almost always make their mark quickly. In Buffalo, Danny Gare scored 18 seconds into his first game in 1974 and Alex Mogilny scored 20 seconds into his debut in 1989. Gretzky recorded an assist in his first-ever NHL game. Eric Lindros scored a goal in his debut as did Gordie Howe.
The expectations for McDavid and Eichel to produce will be overwhelming. Both players have proved they can handle the pressure that comes with being in the spotlight. Even if neither of them hits the scoresheet tonight, they are both primed for memorable seasons.
It is a special time to be a hockey fan. Last season was decidedly ho-hum from an excitement standpoint and the league, a decade after reinventing itself and energizing its fan base with a new offensive style, has found itself being dragged back into the muck of low-scoring defensive play where shot blockers and role players often have as much impact on the game as scoring stars.
In that sense, McDavid and Eichel couldn’t have come along at a better time. And now the waiting is over.