BUFFALO, N.Y. – Linked together even before they were selected with the first two picks of the 2015 NHL draft, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are again forging a similar path.
Both represent the future of struggling franchises and both have mostly lived up to the hype, excelling as teen sensations for the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres.
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“They’re two fabulous players,” Oilers coach Todd McClellan said Tuesday before the first NHL meeting between McDavid and Eichel. “We’re very lucky to have them on our teams. We’re very lucky to have them in our league and the fans are very lucky to watch them play on a nightly basis because they’re gifted, they’re skilled, they’re the future of our game.”
The first overall pick last June, McDavid has quickly become the symbol of hope for an Oilers squad on track to miss the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season. Fairly or not, he embodies the kind of franchise-changing force who can lift the club upward.
Taylor Hall, who joined the Oilers midway through this decade of misfortune as a No. 1 overall pick himself, doesn’t think his challenge came close to that of his younger teammate.
“I wasn’t in the same stratosphere of what Connor’s kind of been through. I was the first overall pick, but it wasn’t the same,” said Hall. “He’s had a lot of expectations and to his credit he’s blown them out of the water. It’s fun to see a kid like that come in and just go play hockey.”
Sabres teammates describe Eichel as bearing that same weight and excelling with similar composure.
The 19-year-old fronts a Sabres club that’s had a bleak run, if not as turbulent as the Oilers. Second-last in the Eastern Conference, Buffalo will miss the playoffs for the fifth straight season and seventh time in the past nine campaigns.
Like McDavid, the former Boston University star is the face of hope for a turnaround.
“From Day 1, I noticed an ease and maturity of how he’s dealt with this situation,” Sabres coach Dan Byslma said of Eichel. “I can’t even imagine what my 18th and 19th birthday would have been like if I had been put through the same spotlight.”
It certainly won’t be up to either as an individual to lift their clubs from the mud of recent seasons — that’s the challenge of management — but they can each do their part on the ice. Both have so far.
Sabres forward Matt Moulson saw first-hand how another top pick absorbed enormous pressures, if not quite equal to those of McDavid, and became the frontman of his team’s resurgence.
The New York Islanders were the worst team in the league when John Tavares was picked first overall in 2009.
He’s led their turnaround into a competitive force in the East.
Tavares thrived because of a work ethic that was unlike anything he’d ever seen before, said Moulson.
“I’m sure a lot of it’s God-given, but he works at it each day,” Moulson said of the Islanders captain. “Any young superstar, he’s probably a good role model to follow.”
Similarities aside, the rookies seasons of McDavid and Eichel have gone differently in some ways.
Eichel has played in every game for the Sabres, giving him a slight leg up in the learning process, McClellan said.
“The good thing for Jack is he’s kind of gone through it already and figured out some of the opponents, figured out some buildings, figured out the referees, the linesmen — how they behave and act on the ice surface,” McClellan said. “He probably understands his teammates a little bit better and the coaching staff. Connor’s still going through that. He hasn’t played half a season yet.”
McDavid, he noted, hasn’t even had his first slump yet.
Absent for 37 games because of a collar bone injury, McDavid has played less than half of the Oilers contests this season. The 19-year-old, humming at better than a point-per-game pace in limited action, says he’s still in his earliest days of learning the league and the challenges that come with leading a team. It will come with experience, which Eichel has had more of so far.
Bylsma referenced a recent challenge for Eichel during a road trip through California. With Buffalo’s top centre Ryan O’Reilly injured, Eichel was forced to duel with top centres from the Ducks, Sharks and Kings. He came up pointless through the three games, two of which saw the Sabres shut out.
“I like the fact that he feels responsible that he didn’t produce on the trip,” Bylsma said. “He expects to and needs to and thinks he should do that for our team.”
McDavid and Eichel, who say their relationship is cordial, are travelling a similar path.
“It’s definitely not fun,” said McDavid of the early days of losing, “but it’s all part of the process.”