MONTREAL – Young legs for the young guns. If Team North America wants to ride one edge it might have on other teams in the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, speed will be where it’s at.
Who is one of the best combinations of speed and power on this roster? Sabres center Jack Eichel.
Fast and furious while utilizing the power stride so often seen during his rookie season in Buffalo, Eichel and his new teammates blazed around the Bell Centre ice Monday in their first practice together for a team that currently rates as the great curiosity of the hockey world.
If you’re an under-24 player from Canada or the United States, you’re not eligible to play in this event for your home country. It’s Team NA or bust. Months of chatter and buildup led to Monday’s highly anticipated first workout at the home of the Montreal Canadiens.
“It’s something all of us have been looking forward to for a while, “ Eichel said after more than two hours on the ice over two sessions. “It’s nice to get on the ice with everyone and see our skill come out and see how good we can be.”
“When you think about speed, you’re skating fast but that only happens when there’s crisp puck movement, players are working to position, the execution is sharp,” said Team North America coach Todd McLellan of Edmonton. “That’s what training camp is for, to get that up and running.”
There are a lot of centers on this club and you might see experimentation on the wing with Eichel during the pre-tournament work. On Monday, he was between Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and Columbus’ Brandon Saad. He also got some power play work in rotating with Gaudreau, Toronto’s Auston Matthews, Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, Tampa Bay’s Jonathan Drouin and Philadelphia’s Shayne Gostisbehere.
“We’re young and we can use that to our advantage,” Eichel said. “We play with a lot of pace, play fast. I think that’s going to be good. You have to like our chances. A lot of people are probably counting us out with a lot of inexperience and being a young team. But we know in this room we can be really good.”
Team North America’s top line had Edmonton’s Connor McDavid centering Drouin and Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele. Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins centered MacKinnon and Detroit’s Dylan Larkin while Matthews and Florida’s Vincent Trocheck took turns on a fourth line with New York’s J.T. Miller and Philadelphia’s Sean Couturier.
“Everyone is pretty happy. There’s no bad players on this team,” said a smiling Eichel. “Everyone is super skilled so I don’t think that will be a problem. Everyone is pulling in the right direction.”
The tourney is along the much-awaited debut of Eichel playing on the same team with McDavid in a showcase of the top two picks in the 2015 draft.
“It’s nice,” McDavid said. “It’s definitely better to be on his team than against him. He’s obviously an unbelievable player and it’s good to have him in our room.”
“It’s great,” added McLellan. “Wouldn’t you like to do that every day? … Tremendously talented, great hockey skills and skill sets. They’re teammates now, which hasn’t happened before but it’s happening now and it’s great to be a part of it.”
Eichel long ago grew tired of questions about the McDavid comparisons but was thrilled to finally be on his side Monday.
“I had never been on the same team as him obviously and it’s good for a lot of us,” he said. “Growing up in USA Hockey, you play against a lot of these good players from Canada. Same with them playing agianst us. To kind of mesh and become one team for a tournament is pretty exciting.”
The team has two more practices here before its first exhibition game, Thursday night against Team Europe in Quebec City. It returns here for a game against Europe on Sunday before its final tuneup match Sept. 14 against Team Czech Republic in Pittsburgh. Team North America’s tournament opener in Toronto is Sept. 18 against Finland.
Said McLellan: “If you’re a pure hockey fan, it doesn’t matter what country you’re from, you want to watch this team. You want to see who’s evolving. The eyes of the world are going to be on these guys.”
More from Eichel Monday:
• On the jump into the NHL season this tournament can give him: “In the summer you’re getting ready right away where everyone else has another month. I look at it that you’re going to be in game shape already heading into training camp and you’ll be differently prepared than everyone else. This is a great event for our league and definitely for us, it’s a great kickoff.”
• On close friend Jimmy Vesey’s decision to bypass Buffalo and sign with the New York Rangers: “I didn’t know where he was going to go. I’m happy for him, that he finally could make his choice. A lot of people put a lot of pressure on him. I felt like everyone was in his ear and that’s never easy.
“I didn’t try to pressure him to come to Buffalo. I told him what we were all about but at the end of the day, it’s his decision. I didn’t want to get in his head. If I was in his position, I would have wanted to be left alone to make the choice. I’m happy for him. For him to be in New York will be great for him.”
• On living this season in a city townhouse with linemate Sam Reinhart after spending last year in the suburbs with Matt Moulson: “We talked about it some last year while we were rooming together on the road. I think it will be fun, a great thing for both of us at this point of our careers.”