Jack Eichel can only hope to be as good as Pat Falloon.
Well, for one season anyway.
During the past 25 years, no No. 2 pick has jumped from the draft stage to the NHL like Falloon. The right winger, coming off consecutive 60-goal seasons in junior hockey, immediately joined San Jose for the 1991-92 season. He was a sensation, leading the expansion team with 25 goals, 34 assists and 59 points.
Falloon’s career quickly fizzled, but he’s proof that teenagers can excel right away. It’s not easy. More than half have failed to get the chance.
Of the last 25 players drafted second overall, 12 played in the NHL immediately. The other 13 stayed in juniors, college or Europe.
Eichel will be the next No. 2 selection when the Buffalo Sabres draft him Friday in Florida’s BB&T Center. The expectations will be tremendous. Fans have been dreaming of Eichel for more than a year, and they’ll want the 18-year-old to torment opponents like he did during a Hobey Baker-winning season at Boston University.
The expectations should probably be lowered. The first-year numbers typically aren’t impressive.
Since 1990, there have been eight forwards drafted second overall who joined the NHL right away. The average player recorded 16 goals, 19 assists and 35 points. The median player had 12 goals, 17.5 assists and 31.5 points.
If Eichel matched the median for last season’s Sabres, he would have ranked fifth in goals and fourth in assists and points on the goal-starved club.
Eichel is a special talent, so maybe he’ll excel like Falloon, Gabriel Landeskog and Jordan Staal. There’s also a chance he’ll mirror the underwhelming rookie years put together by No. 2 picks Petr Nedved and Tyler Seguin. Who knows? Eichel could even follow the career path of Bobby Ryan, who spent two more seasons in junior hockey and one in the minors before becoming an NHL regular.
“I still haven’t announced I’m leaving school, but if that were the case I’m sure I’d then sit down and set my goals,” Eichel said. “The one thing I always believe is I think you set the bar pretty high, and that’s what I’ll do.”
Eichel has proved adept at exceeding expectations, including his own. He stepped onto campus as a true freshman last season and led the NCAA in points (71) and assists (45) while scoring 26 goals in 40 games.
“It’s exceptional what Jack did,” said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting. “For him to step in and just kind of take charge and take control there, it shows how special of a player he is.”
Folks thought highly of Nedved, too, back in 1990. The winger from the Czech Republic showed he was ready for North American play with 65 goals and 145 points in 71 games with Seattle of the Western Hockey league.
Vancouver drafted him second overall and put him in the starting lineup. He struggled mightily with 10 goals and six assists in 61 games.
“Everything is so much quicker, and everyone is so much stronger,” he told the Seattle Times during his rookie season. “They hook and hold and hit. I am not complaining but just saying that I must get used to it.”
Nedved finally arrived in his third year, putting up 38 goals and 71 points.
Seguin was one of the better centers in the game this season, but his rookie year in 2010-11 was an exercise in patience. Boston slowly worked him into its Stanley Cup-winning lineup. He totaled 11 goals and 22 points in 74 games.
“You got to stay tough upstairs in your head and try to keep your confidence up and just really work hard in practice,” Seguin said on PlymouthWhalers.com following the season. “You work hard, you practice, you work out, so I decided to stay focused with that.”
When Seguin played, it often wasn’t much. He averaged 12:12 of ice time per game, and he skated 12:20 or less 35 times. He had a four-game stretch in February 2011 where his ice time ranged from 6:37 to 9:26.
“You try to give him as much ice time as you can,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said during an in-season news conference. “Right now you certainly can’t expose him against top lines. That much I think we’re all unanimous on. He’s a guy that I feel that whenever he gets the puck and you give him some space he’s a dangerous player, but obviously there’s more to the game than that. But he’s finding and feeling his way through that.”
San Jose was also cautious after drafting Patrick Marleau with the No. 2 pick in 1997. He averaged 13:12 of ice time, including games of just 2:28 and 5:58. He skated 12:20 or less 25 times. He finished with 13 goals and 19 assists in 74 games.
Landeskog entered the 2011 draft as the most physically mature player. Colorado selected the 6-foot, 207-pound forward with the No. 2 pick and wasted no time utilizing him. He recorded 22 goals and 52 points in 82 games while skating 18:36 per night.
“He wins all the hard areas, and that has a huge impact on the game,” St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock said during a news conference following Landeskog’s rookie year. “He can take the puck off the boards on you, get to the front of the net and win the battles there. How many 19-year-olds can do that?”
Eichel, like Landeskog, already has a man’s body. The 6-2, 194-pound center has the strength to mirror Landeskog’s tenacity. If Eichel starts with hard work, he’ll become more confident and the coaching staff will trust him more.
“You want to be out there to make a difference and be a factor in the game,” Landeskog told CBSSports.com after his first season. “When you get that confidence, when you know the management and the coaches believe in you, you want to go out there and show them what you can do.”
Staal was the only No. 2 pick to immediately step in and top the goal totals of Falloon and Landeskog. He scored 29 times while centering Pittsburgh’s third line in 2006. Even with the success, the teenager had plenty of rookie moments. He skated 12:20 or less 15 times, including a night when he was on the ice only 7:25 despite scoring a goal.
A measured approach
While Eichel is expected to jump right to the NHL, there are plenty of No. 2 picks who did not. Waiting didn’t hurt Daniel Sedin, Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, Evgeni Malkin, James van Riemsdyk or Ryan.
Sedin played one more season in Sweden before joining Vancouver. Heatley went back to the University of Wisconsin for one more year, then put together a rookie campaign in Ottawa that featured 26 goals and 57 points. Spezza returned to juniors and split the following season between Ottawa and its minor-league club. Malkin spent two more seasons in Russia following his draft, while van Riemsdyk played two additional seasons at the University of New Hampshire.
Few teams were more patient with a No. 2 pick than Anaheim. After drafting Ryan in 2005, the Ducks didn’t make him a roster regular until the 2008-09 season. The forward spent two years in junior and one primarily in the minors. When he finally got the chance, he put up 31 goals and 57 points in just 64 games.
“He’s a young player that’s made huge strides with our organization,” then-Ducks coach Randy Carlyle told the Orange County Register. “I talked to him at length about how he has changed his body makeup, the way he approaches the game from the standpoint of not being a high-risk, high-reward player.
“He changed a lot of the things that he was trying to do on the ice, became more of a guy willing to grind the puck, keep it in the offensive zone and not play that high-risk, high-reward, turnover game.”
Eichel’s north-south style and hockey sense are conducive to making an immediate impact. He’s physically ready. Still, as players from Nedved to Marleau to Seguin have shown, Eichel likely will make a few trips to coach Dan Bylsma’s doghouse. Fans need to be prepared.
“Someone that thinks they’re going to step right into the NHL will kind of get a rude shock sometimes,” Marr said. “Sometimes that’s immaturity. Connor” McDavid, the No. 1 draft pick, “and Jack are both very mature. I think they know what’s ahead of them, and they’re going to be prepared for it.”