MONTREAL − Johnny Gaudreau and Jack Eichel won the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in college hockey in consecutive years. They’ve developed a friendship working out in the Boston area and have agreed to keep their Boston College-Boston University needling quiet during the World Cup.
They’ve also become linemates. Gaudreau, the Calgary sharpshooter who was second to South Buffalo’s Patrick Kane in points among American players last season, is joining Columbus’ Brandon Saad as Eichel’s wingers to start this tournament. The trio has spent both days of Team North America practice together and will certainly be a unit during the exhibition opener Thursday in Quebec City against Team Europe.
“We’ve become good buddies, spent time together,” Eichel said of Gaudreau on Tuesday in Bell Centre. “The BU/BC thing isn’t hard really. I’m not giving him a hard time and neither is he. It’s enjoyable to be around him. He has a lot of fun. And it’s nice to be on the same ice with him and play with him instead of chasing him around.”
“Jack’s got a great stride, fast,” the 5-foot-9 Gaudreau said. “He’s got a great shot, sees the ice really well. He’s a great player all around and when I’m out there, just get him the puck in a shooting area and hopefully he can find the net. I’m with two really talented players. It’s going to be exciting to play with skill guys like that.”
Team North America coach Todd McLellan was initially going to pair Gaudreau with Calgary teammate Sean Monahan. But when Monahan pulled out due to injury, McLellan put the speed and power of Eichel with the speed and shiftiness of Gaudreau, who had 78 points in 79 games last season.
“He’s a game-changer. He controls the pace of play offensively and you’re always aware of him when he’s on the ice,” McLellan said of Gaudreau. “He can turn nothing into something quite quickly. His ability to bob and weave and escape through very tight areas with the puck and create off it is an asset he has.”
Gaudreau and Winnipeg defenseman Jacob Trouba are restricted free agents playing for Team North America without contracts, as Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainaen is doing for Team Finland. Gaudreau told his agent he was done negotiating until the tournament was done and is comfortable with the insurance provided by the league and the NHLPA.
“I kind of just go into it as if I do have a contract,” said Gaudreau. “I was really looking forward to this tournament. I was excited when I found out I was on the team. I think whether I have a contract or not, I was going to play in it. I’m excited to be here.”
Monday’s opening day of practice featured huge curiosity for participants and observers as months of buildup finally ended. On Day Two, things seemed much more at ease.
About the only faux pas was when Tampa Bay’s Jonathan Drouin took a tough hit from Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba and plowed into an open bench door. Drouin stayed down briefly and went off slowly but returned and was fine. McLellan sheepishly said that was a product of multiple head coaches on the bench and that they’ll have to make sure tiny details like that don’t get lost.
Line combinations stayed just about the same as Monday. Connor McDavid continued to center Drouin and Mark Schiefele on the top line with Eichel in the middle of line No. 2. The only notable change was some turns No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews of Toronto took on the third line, forming an all-No. 1 overall trio with Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon.
When Matthews moved up, that dropped Detroit’s Dylan Larkin to the fourth line to split time with New York’s J.T. Miller alongside Philadelphia’s Sean Couturier and Florida’s Vincent Trocheck.
McLellan admitted coaching an entire team of young players is a far different task than a fully stocked NHL team that can have players spanning the ages of 18 into the late 30s.
“I have a 20- and a 17-year-old and they keep me current, which is pretty good,” McLellan said. “I know how important phones are and hats and it’s the same thing with this group. We’ve got to manage them like they’re younger adults and not 35-year-olds. We have to meet them in the middle a little bit with some of that stuff.
“We’re trying to jam a lot of information in three days, give them simple structure and trying to predict what might happen on the ice to each of them. After that, we’ll turn them loose and let them go. Like I told our guys, ‘If we’re in first grade right now as our power play goes, we’ve got to get to Grade 5 here quite quickly.’ But we’re not getting there unless we get the basics down.”