Try as they might, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel aren’t likely to escape the inevitable comparisons between them any time soon.
The top two picks in last June’s NHL Entry Draft – McDavid No. 1 to the Edmonton Oilers, Eichel next to the Buffalo Sabres – will be forever linked.
Since that time, it’s become increasingly clear neither player cares much about being compared to the other.
The latest example of that came Monday, on the eve of their first meeting as professionals. Speaking before the Oilers boarded their plane to Buffalo, McDavid was asked by Edmonton reporters if Tuesday night’s game against the Sabres will carry any additional motivation given that it’s the first against the player drafted right behind him.
“It’s tough to say,” McDavid said. “I’ve never talked to him about it or anything like that, so I don’t really know his feeling. For me personally, it’s not really too much of a big deal.
“We got drafted together, sure, but other than that we don’t really share that much in common. He plays in the East, I play in the West. He went to school, I played in junior. So we’re basically opposites in that sense. So for us personally, it’s not much to it.”
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That line of thinking pretty much mirrors what Eichel expressed back in October when asked if the pre-draft process brought the two together.
“No, we’re not friends,” Eichel bluntly said at that time. “I don’t really know him. I don’t have his number. We were friendly when we were together in different situations, but that was really it. He’s a good kid, so I got to know him a little bit in person.”
McDavid echoed a similar comment Monday when he said he got to know Eichel on a “basic level,” during the buildup to the draft, but that’s the extent of their relationship.
“Share a couple words and all that,” he said. “But for me, I was there with” Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner and Lawson Crouse, “guys that I knew very well going in, so I spent a lot time with them and just tried to share that whole draft experience with the guys I was close with.”
So, no, don’t expect McDavid and Eichel to get together for lunch any time soon. But that’s not to say McDavid isn’t looking forward to his first trip to Buffalo as a pro. He’s plenty pumped for the game, but less because of a head-to-head matchup with Eichel and more because he’ll have family in the stands and friends from his old junior team in Erie, Pa., coming up.
McDavid missed Edmonton’s first game against the Sabres back in December because of a broken left clavicle suffered in November. At the time of his injury, Eichel basically bristled at any questions about it.
“Hockey is a physical game and things happen,” he said then. “It’s unfortunate. It doesn’t really affect me at all. I’m still playing and I’m sure he’ll be OK.”
Eichel was right about that. Since returning from his injury, McDavid has five goals and 12 assists in 12 games.
“Obviously there’s a lot of talk about the two of them,” Oilers coach Todd McLellan said. “I don’t think it’s going to affect either of the athletes that are playing. They’re going to give everything they have in the game and play hard for their team. I think a lot more is going to be made out of it with all of the cameras and microphones than anything.
“Both of those players are still in the developmental stage and trying to make their mark in a very good league. Both have done a tremendous job. They’re fun to watch. The fans are treated to some real good games by both of them and they will be for a long time.”
The Sabres did not practice Monday, so Eichel was spared any more talk about McDavid for at least a day. General Manager Tim Murray touched on the much-hyped matchup during his news conference following the conclusion of the NHL trade deadline Monday afternoon.
“They’re both young. They’re both pretty good. I don’t know if one cares about the other at all,” he said of McDavid and Eichel. ”I think that they both want to win tomorrow night because of their teams.
“They’re both great players. Jack has settled in here very well and is obviously a huge part of our team and a huge part of the community now. I see him on TV quite a bit doing ads and that, so he’s settled in. … I guess it’s about them vs. each other as far as the media goes and some fans will see it that way, too. I just think it’s two teams trying to get better that will both play hard. I know we’ll play hard tomorrow night.”
McDavid and Eichel will face each other in a game for the first time since New Year’s Eve 2014, when they were respectively part of Team Canada and Team USA in the World Juniors tournament.
The comparisons between the two date back to even before that game, as do their efforts at trying to downplay them.
“It’s not at all about me vs. Connor,” Eichel said before that much-hyped meeting in the World Juniors. “It’s a huge matchup for the top seed in our bracket. It’s Canada and the U.S.”
Of course, with so much of last season being devoted to the reverse standings and chase for “McEichel,” both players begrudgingly realize comparisons are inevitable. ESPN even has a tracker comparing their stats on a game-by-game basis.
“I’m sure it’s going to be pretty well covered” in the media, McDavid said of their first meeting. “I think everyone expects that, but I think for the both of us, it’s just another game, you know?”
Although they had played against each other before, the first time McDavid and Eichel spent any real time together was in Buffalo during the NHL Scouting Combine last June. While they’ll be on separate benches Tuesday, the next time McDavid and Eichel are on the ice together will likely be as teammates.
Both are expected to be named Wednesday to the Team North America roster for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey that will be held in Toronto in September. The North American team consists of players 23 or younger from the United States and Canada.
“The potential exists. They both had very good years and if they are named to the team, I’d be very excited about having both of them,” said McLellan, who will serve as the North American coach.