Jack Eichel proving he belongs in the NHL

Watch as Jack Eichel muscles his way through the Tampa Bay Lightning and gets off a slick shot that beats Vasilevskiy.

EDMONTON — Scalpers, fans, the TV networks, Connor McDavid — they’re all a little bummed that tonight’s game between the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers does not feature the first ever National Hockey League meeting between the top two picks from the 2015 draft.

But what does Jack Eichel think?

“It doesn’t mean anything to me,” said Eichel, gearing down after a Saturday practice at Rexall Place.

The whole McDavid vs. Eichel thing has never favoured Eichel. McDavid is a pretty tough act to follow, let’s face it, and Eichel’s own future GM miss-stepped when he showed his displeasure at not winning the right to draft McDavid at the draft lottery.

And to be truthful, Eichel just doesn’t need any extra hype. He’s the real deal: a big, strong, super fast hockey prodigy who is making his mark in the Eastern Conference just fine, thank you, nearly as emphatically as McDavid was making his mark out West before his injury.

So the whole Eichel-McDavid thing, “I don’t really put much thought into it. That’s why I don’t really talk about it,” Eichel said politely. “If I were to speak for Connor I’m sure he’s not too worried about it. I’m not either. We’re both in our respective cities playing for our own teams and worried about ourselves and our well-being.”

You’ve got to respect the fact that a 19-year-old has the self-confidence to look the media dead in the eye and say, “Meh, your angle has no legs with me.” Kudos to Eichel for being his own man, a trait we’re seeing more and more now among high echelon draft picks.

Eichel faces the media like a 10-year vet, and he walks into the NHL ready to play at age 18 (he turned 19 on Oct. 28). His general manager, Tim Murray, has been a bird dog for years. He sees a vastly different 18-year-old in Eichel than the one he was drafting a decade or more ago, during previous jobs in Ottawa or Anaheim.

“Right off the bat it’s the skill set. It’s high-end, and he does everything at a high pace,” Murray said of Eichel. “(Years ago) players needed more time to get stronger and up to speed. He was up to speed, and his size, his strength and his pace of play is not an issue. His only issue is experience, or lack thereof. He looks like he belongs.”

Eichel and McDavid, Aaron Ekblad in 2014, Nathan MacKinnon in ’13 — they all walk right into the NHL like they belong. “These guys, they more than belong,” Murray said. “Our league is going younger. Players’ prime years are going down. A player’s prime? It’s not late 20’s and early 30’s anymore.”

At the rate this whirlwind season is going for Eichel, his prime might begin some time in March. He takes a scoring line of 8-5-13 into Game 27 at Edmonton tonight, but admits that, “Sometimes you wake up and you think you’re on the road, but you’re at home. You’re bouncing back and forth…

“Everything happens fast on the ice and off the ice, too,” he said of life in the NHL. “It seems like time flies by. It’s crazy, we’ve already played 25 games and it’s already December. It feels like yesterday that we were at training camp. I’m just trying to soak it all in and enjoy it in my first year.”

The Sabres put Eichel in the home of Matt Moulson’s family, so he’s got proper guidance and three squares there. Still, you never know how a kid who was hyped this hard is going to react to all the trapping of being an NHLer.

After watching him play through his teens, Murray knew that Eichel would be fine on the ice. There was only one place where he could possibly trip up.

“To me it was off ice. Lifestyle,” Murray said. “How would he handle coming from college, where they gear up to play weekends? How he’d get his rest, eat properly… We have a great staff for those things, but you can’t force a 19-year-old to listen.”

This 19-year-old? He listens. And, he thinks for himself before he answers.

It’s a trait that will serve Jack Eichel well.

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