McDavid, Eichel creating biggest 1-2 buzz since Crosby, Ovechkin in 2005
EDMONTON Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli’s effort to ease excitement about Connor McDavid was akin to trying to force the genie back into the bottle.
“I wanted to temper it, because I know expectations can be set too high publicly,” Chiarelli says. “But I didn’t do a good job of it... The city is abuzz. Every time I’m walking around people are talking about Connor.”
Chiarelli laughs. “Weekly I say, ‘He is young, and he has a lot of adjustment to do,’ ” he says. “I don’t know if anyone is listening to me. I think it is going in one ear and out the other.”
That scene is repeating itself in Buffalo, where Sabres fans are over the moon about superprospect Jack Eichel, an American who played at Boston University.
The excitement level about these two rookies might be greater than the buzz created when Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin entered the NHL together in 2005- 06. McDavid and Eichel might be a half a layer below those players in offensive potential, but they might get more attention because social media wasn’t a factor when Crosby and Ovechkin arrived.
“It’s fabulous,” Nashville Predators general manager David Poile says. “You have two players going to franchises that are trying to work themselves back into the playoffs. These players could not have landed in better spots, because they will be attached to the success of their franchise on and off the ice.”
Both players are 18, and traditionally teenagers, even those with exceptional talent, have growing pains dealing with the speed and physical demands of the game.
“I think Connor is an enviable situation,” former NHL team executive Craig Button says. “There will be good players around him, and there is a really good coach (Todd McLellan) there.”
McDavid joins a team that has three previous No. 1 overall draft picks (Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov), plus skilled forwards Jordan Eberle and Leon Draisaitl.
“With the offence and Todd McLellan, I think a 70-point season is not out of the realm of the possibility for Connor McDavid this season,” says former NHL goalie Darren Pang, now a television analyst.
Eichel might have the opportunity to play this season with proven scorer Evander Kane, talented Tyler Ennis or former 30-goal scorer Matt Moulson.
“I think he will need 10 or 12 games to settle in to what he is,” Button says. “I think he will try too hard in the beginning.”
Both have the poise and confidence to handle the pressure of being the most talked-about players since Crosby joined the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005.
“Connor is a real down-to-earth kid,” Chiarelli says. “He said the other day, ‘I just want my teammates to know that I come to work every day to try my best.’ That’s a pretty mature and humble statement... This kid has not been coached to say those things. He means it.”
Chiarelli says he talked to McDavid about expectations.
“I said, ‘This is a long season and you are going to have adjustments from just being a professional hockey player, and that will wear you down,’ ” Chiarelli says. “There will be nights when you won’t have the legs. There will be nights that you will be playing centre and you will be leaned on a lot. I said, ‘You will have to be prepared for those nights and just work through them. Don’t get down.’ He knows that. He’s a very realistic kid. He wants to be a leader. He knows he is playing against very strong individuals. He is a very bright kid.”
Eichel is having the same impact in Buffalo McDavid is having in Edmonton. Eichel scored in his first NHL pre-season game. But Eichel, like McDavid, understands nothing comes easy, regardless of a player’s skill level.
“It’s obviously an adjustment,” Eichel said. “The biggest thing to adjust to is that it is a lot tougher to make plays one- on- one.”
Eichel, like McDavid, has magic in his hands, but veteran players have seen all the tricks top offensive players can perform.
“Guys are strong, faster, smarter,” Eichel said. “They cut down angles quicker. You always have to be working without the puck.”
He said Buffalo coach Dan Bylsma and his assistants are constantly reminding him to keep his feet moving so he is always receiving the puck at full speed. Eichel is an elite skater.
“If I’m in the right areas and doing the right things, then good things will happen,” Eichel said. “So far that has been the case.”
Even before he was drafted, Eichel played for Team USA against NHL-calibre competition at the world championship.
“He played against (Evgeni) Malkin. He played against (Alex) Ovechkin’s line. He’s playing against (Vladimir) Tarasenko’s line,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma says. “He played big minutes for our team. And I do think it was a huge learning curve for him.”
Bylsma says Eichel took 20 draws a game against top players.
“It was a challenge for him,” Bylsma says. “It was great learning experience over 3½ weeks.”
Eichel said he did learn plenty at the world championships, noting he learned more every game he played.
“You can never take a second off while you are on the ice,” Eichel said, “especially against the other team’s top two lines. I learned that at the World Championships.”
During his NHL career, Bylsma played with Paul Kariya and spent a bit of time with Wayne Gretzky. He coached Crosby in Pittsburgh. All of them are superstars known for putting the team first. Bylsma says Eichel has that quality. “He very much fits into a team,” Bylsma said. But Bylsma cautions against expecting too much from a teenager who has never faced the grind of an NHL schedule.
“He has to get better at playing away from the puck,” Bylsma says. “You are going to be out there against Sidney Crosby, Nicklas Backstrom and David Krejci. Skating with them... that’s not going to be an issue. But he will have to learn what to do to compete against them.”
Bylsma views Eichel as a two-way centre who will pass more than he shoots. That might change over time.
“I think he’s a pass-first guy,” Bylsma says. “His size, skating and reach give him the opportunity to be that kind of player. He has great hockey sense.”
McDavid and Eichel will be forever linked because they were taken in the same draft. And the comparison is spiced by the fact Eichel is an American who played college hockey and McDavid is a Canadian who played junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League.
Dan Marr, the NHL’s director of Central Scouting, says it’s possible one will have more impact one season and the other will be more dominant the next season.
No one understands what the two are going through better than Crosby.
“Your surroundings have such a big impact on what you do on the ice,” he says.
Crosby met McDavid this summer and was impressed by his mental makeup. “He’s pretty level-headed. He’s got things figured out pretty well,” he says.
What will be the challenging aspect for McDavid, who is already a media star in Canada. “The constant expectations of going city to city,” Crosby said.
Crosby says McDavid’s advantage is plenty of his Edmonton teammates had considerable experience at a young age.
“He’s only 18, but mentally he is a mature kid,” says Nugent-Hopkins, 22. “Physically, (he) is more mature than I was at his age. That will help him out coming into the league.”
He says it’s hard to guess how many points McDavid will have as points are harder to generate. Last season’s scoring champion, Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn, had the lowest leading point total for a full season in years (87).
“(McDavid) is going to have a real positive impact on our team, and that’s the most important thing,” Nugent-Hopkins says.
Much is expected of Edmonton Oilers centrepiece Connor McDavid. Some are predicting he could tally 70 points in his rookie season.
Jack Eichel is expected too lead the Buffalo Sabres out of the low- rent area.