Rare rook­ies

McDavid, Eichel cre­at­ing big­gest 1-2 buzz since Crosby, Ovechkin in 2005

SundayXtra - - NHL REPORT - By Kevin Allen

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.

JASON FRANSON / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES

Much is ex­pected of Ed­mon­ton Oil­ers cen­tre­piece Con­nor McDavid. Some are pre­dict­ing he could tally 70 points in his rookie sea­son.

DAR­REN CALABRESE / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES

Jack Eichel is ex­pected too lead the Buf­falo Sabres out of the low- rent area.

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