Jack Eichel had the spotlight stolen from him before he stepped on the ice on Tuesday night. The Sabres’ talented young centre watched from the bench as Edmonton’s Connor McDavid swiped a puck from one of Eichel’s teammates and deposited it into the net 22 seconds into the game. As the sport’s most-heralded rookie in a generation celebrated, the kid who was picked second stifled a grimace and stared straight ahead.
A little more than two hours later, Eichel sat at his dressing stall trying to compose himself. In overtime, the 19-year-old had barely missed a spectacular, spinning shot. The game ended seconds later, when McDavid flipped a backhand through the legs of Buffalo goalie Robin Lehner to end a brilliant rush.
“There were eight guys on the ice,” Eichel eventually said, biting off words. “It’s a team game.”
It is hard to be Jack Eichel. By any measure, the NHL’s second draft pick is having an outstanding season. Heading into the weekend, he has 18 goals and 24 assists, and will make his first visit to Toronto on Monday, when the Sabres play the Maple Leafs. Nary a disappointing word can be uttered about him at this point, other than to say that he is not Connor McDavid. That is his challenge now, and may forever be.
Earlier this week in Buffalo, Eichel was clearly the best player on the ice – with one exception. Most nights, the Boston University standout will be better than anyone else. Tuesday was not one of them. It is a hard truth in sports. As great as Bill Russell was, he still wasn’t as good as Wilt Chamberlain.
It is not a dilemma for Eichel alone. It is one he shares with other members of what has turned out to be a good incoming class. With a lot of help from Patrick Kane, Chicago’s Artemi Panarin is running away with the rookie scoring race.
At times, Arizona’s Max Domi and Detroit’s Dylan Larkin have played wonderfully, and for one short stretch, Calgary’s Sam Bennett became a one-man wrecking crew. But beyond their own cities, is there a hullabaloo about any of them?
Even in a season abbreviated by injury, that sense of excitement, and the appetite for highlight-reel goals, is what McDavid brings that others don’t. In his first game after a three-month layoff, he skated through the Columbus Blue Jackets until they became dizzy. In his first game against his hometown Maple Leafs, he scored a career-high five points. In his first meeting with Eichel, the Oilers’ No. 1 draft pick scored his fastest goal and first overtime game-winner.
The way the two baby-faced teenagers are linked through the draft is what makes it difficult for Eichel. It is a position of circumstance rather than choice. Unless he becomes his day’s Marcel Dionne to McDavid’s Guy Lafleur, it is a bond that will be hard to escape.
In Buffalo, fans adore him the same way the Edmonton faithful loves McDavid. Eichel has quickly become the face of the franchise, and has not disappointed with the way he has played. He scored his first career NHL goal on opening night, has been consistent throughout and has 28 points over the past 30 games. His offensive surge, however, has been overshadowed by McDavid’s return from a broken clavicle. He has 20 points in 16 games.
Even the most passionate Sabres fans see Eichel as the runner-up in the draft-lottery sweepstakes. If they didn’t before, it became clearer this week. As a crowd of more than 19,000 people jeered, McDavid torched them twice, the first time before many of them had even found their seats. Seconds after the opening faceoff, McDavid stripped the puck from Zach Bogosian, then broke to the net and accepted an easy pass from Jordan Eberle. As McDavid shifted gears, the confused Lehner lost his balance as he tried to block one side of the net and then the other. McDavid flicked a backhand into the opposite corner; for him, it was as easy as breathing.
“McDavid is already a top player in the NHL,” Matt Licata III said earlier as he had dinner at (716) Food and Sport, a block from First Niagara Center. “He is better than Eichel.”
And he is Eichel’s fan.
A student on March break from Seton Hall, Licata attended the game with his dad, Matt Jr., who has been following the Sabres since their inaugural season in 1970. Father and son both wore identical No. 15 jerseys with Eichel’s name stitched across the back.
Last season, Matt Jr. suspected the Sabres were not always playing their hardest in hope of increasing their chances of drafting McDavid. The rookie sensation grew up across the border in southern Ontario, and played in the Ontario Hockey League for three seasons with Erie, about two hours down Interstate 90.
“The tank was on,” Matt Jr. says.
They have no complaints about Eichel; nor does anyone else. It is more a resignation over an opportunity lost than resentment that the Sabres got the second choice. Maybe they will have better luck this summer, when the next great prospect, the American forward Auston Matthews, enters the draft. Matt III is 18 and shares a birthday with Matthews.
“I’m so ripe for the Sabres to get better,” young Matt says.
Quaffing beers and downing wings at the Anchor Bar, Kyle Patryka exchanged banter with Oilers fans about whose rookie was better.
“The guys went one-two and I don’t think you lose with either of them,” Patryka, who drove three hours from Utica, N.Y., with his dad, Adam, says. “Instead of being first and second, I would say it was more like they were 1A and 1B.”
“It doesn’t really matter,” a fellow wearing an Edmonton jersey, shouts from across the bar. He calls himself Nemo – just Nemo – and flew in from Vancouver the day before. “Both teams are lousy.”
They aren’t very good, now, but with McDavid and Eichel there is promise for the future.
The day after the overtime loss to the Oilers, Eichel sits in the dressing room and talks quietly about hockey and his life. He is quiet and polite, and far more at ease than the day before, when he was dragged into a news conference to talk about his first head-to-head meeting with McDavid. For the most part, each of the young players left the impression that they saw this first game as insignificant, a fleeting moment in what will hopefully be long careers.
“I don’t hate talking about Connor McDavid,” Eichel says. “I just try not to focus on him. I really feel it’s more important for me to focus on myself. There was a lot of interest in the game [Tuesday night], but I think that will probably cool down.
“It was the first meeting between us and everybody made a big deal out of it, and rightfully so. But hopefully the next time, that part will get a little less attention.”
A kid from the suburbs of Boston, Eichel started skating at three years old, pushing a crate around the ice. At four, he started playing hockey in a neighbouring town because he was too young to play in his own. McDavid started the same way.
From the time he was in kindergarten through eighth grade, Eichel’s father would come and pick him up at lunch time each Friday. “He’d sign me out of class so we could go somewhere and play hockey together,” Eichel says. “It’s one of the best memories I have.”
He always thought he was an above-average player as he was growing up, but didn’t really know how good he truly was. “I thought I was good, but it was in such a small pond, I wasn’t sure what I would find when I went beyond there.”
By the time he was in Grade 8, he began getting offers to play for colleges, and ended up scoring 71 points in 40 games in his only season at Boston University. The Terriers lost to Providence College last spring in the NCAA championship.
After that, he began preparing for his professional career, which has been a smashing success so far. He lives with Matt Moulson, a 32-year-old teammate, and Moulson’s wife, Alicia. Alicia is a twin whose sister, Jaclyn, is married to Jonathan Quick, the goalie for the Los Angeles Kings.
In his rare free time, Eichel says he likes to get out, and especially loves to shop.
“You have to try to enjoy your time away from the rinks to get your mind off hockey,” he says. “I try not to be too microscopic. If you did that, I think you would go insane. I like to do things that are normal. I really enjoy clothes, and I am into the whole style thing.”
He is a lifelong New England football fan and, more than that, a follower of the Patriots’ future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Tom Brady. He torments teammates by figuring out a way to work Brady into every conversation.
“He’s my favourite athlete, and always will be,” Eichel says.
Fans here have been wonderful to him, even if he is the other guy.
“I find it nice to get recognized,” he says. “Buffalo is a great hockey city. People really go out of their way to make you feel welcome, and I greatly appreciate that.”
In Buffalo, the No. 2 pick has found a home as No. 1.Report Typo/Error
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