Eichel, McDavid could make a generational rivalry

Hugh Burrill reports from Buffalo where the top 4 draft prospects take part in the NHL Scouting Combine.

Okay, here’s a not so fearless prediction. Jack Eichel will out-perform Connor McDavid at the NHL combine Saturday morning. I’d bet on Noah Hanifin to follow suit.

What it means is nothing at all in the draft order. McDavid will go to Edmonton, Eichel to Buffalo and Hanifin to a franchise to be named later.

I don’t know if it’s noteworthy so much as footnote-worthy, but in an interview session with a selected lot of top prospects in attendance at the combine Friday, Boston University’s Eichel and Boston College’s Hanifin impressed you not only with their demeanour but their size and obvious athleticism. There’s nothing the least bit boyish about them. They’re put together like pros. Pure athletic talent. If they were to quit hockey tomorrow I wouldn’t doubt that they could pick up another sport and compete in time at an elite level.

There’s more to it than that, though. Talking to the top prospects you get a real sense that everybody knows everybody. McDavid skated with Hanifin in summer workouts with Dave Gagner, the Bobby Orr agency’s development coach. Dylan Strome knows Hanifin from playing against him in tournaments growing up. ("He was always their best player," the voluble Strome says.) Marner knows Strome. The Ontario guys played in the under-17 program. Connections between players happen all over the place. It’s a very small club. But there’s one thing that jumps out.

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This week the paths of McDavid and Eichel finally crossed. One was walking out of the arena in Buffalo and the other was walking in. They acknowledged each other. And that seems about it. They weren’t instant BFFs, the longest of longshots for a bromance.

Yeah, they’ve played against each other in the world juniors. Still, in a field where everyone knows everyone else these two have managed to move in two separate circuits. Sort of odd, really.

I said to my brethren that I’m looking forward to the day when the first check is deposited in Jack Eichel’s account. At that point I’m going to invite him to sit in on our friendly neighborhood poker game. Let this be said about Eichel, who gets my undying respect as a hockey player: He will never get to the last table at the World Series of Poker. Or past the first table he sits at. Not surprisingly, Eichel is tired of the comparisons between McDavid and him, sort of the variation on the Hertz and Avis thing. You can either laugh or market yourself around being No. 2 (like Avis did) or you can be pissed off about it (like Eichel clearly is).

Jack Eichel is a great talent and, since the Sidney Crosby draft in 2005, you could make a case that his body of work would have him competing favorably against any No.1 overall pick in any draft year, including the likes of Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos and John Tavares. (Jonathan Toews, of course, is an interesting question but, in fact, the Hobey Baker-winning Eichel’s accomplishments absolutely laps Toews at the same stage.) If you’re Jack Eichel, you sit back and say: I’ve done absolutely everything that’s asked of me and what do I get? Hockey’s equivalent of the runner-up at a beauty pageant.

Eichel didn’t show up at the draft-lottery show. He explained that he had "family obligations." He’s doing his best when asked about Buffalo GM Tim Murray cursing the fates when Edmonton won the lottery and bumped the Sabres down to the No. 2 overall pick. Eichel said yesterday that they talked about it in their combine interview and he was satisfied when Murray explained that he was expressing disappointment in the fact that, in the draw, he lost control of his situation. If you buy that your head zippers up in the back.

It’s easy to like Jack Eichel. Listening to Buffalo sports-talk radio Friday a.m. the hosts, who probably haven’t seen a lot of Eichel, talked about Eichel as a fit on the Sabres’ third line. If this turns out to be the case at the end of the next season then Buffalo will be vying for home-ice advantage in the playoffs. Eichel is a step-in-right-now talent. I wouldn’t put him on the first line but he’d compete for it and he’d get there sooner than later.

Eichel is going to blow up at the combine. Longtime officials at the USA Hockey program in Ann Arbor name Eichel as the player who put more time and effort in the gym than anyone else in its history. Talking to those who know the Boston University program, Eichel was killing it in the gym this season and setting team best’s in testing.

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Okay, Eichel is working from a position of advantage. He’s had more time to train for the combine than McDavid. And, more importantly, he’s motivated. He’s a hyper competitive sort, and with no more time to prove himself on the ice he can let it all out under the bar or on the bike. Not that better numbers off the ice make him the better player or better prospect, it’s just that he’d like to plant that seed.

If you suggested that Eichel resents McDavid’s No. 1 status, I’d have a hard time snuffing it out. If you suggested that Eichel doesn’t much like McDavid and vice versa, well, I haven’t come across a lot of evidence to contradict you. Here are the makings of a rivalry that can last a generation even if they play in different conferences. It’s already played out at world juniors and it will almost certainly at the Olympics. The NHL needed a star. Now it has two coming in who will push each other—any sort of psychodrama just makes it that much sweeter.

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