MONTREAL − It was a routine World Cup practice in September, albeit one with a frenetic pace as Team North America was whizzing up and down the Bell Centre ice. Just after noon, coach Todd McLellan decided it was time to break out the power-play units for the first time since the under-24 group convened here Sunday night.
The routine then became eye-opening.
In blue practice jerseys with the “NA” logo on the front, they hopped the boards. Not much notice was paid when Winnipeg’s Mark Schiefele or Columbus’ Brandon Saad hit the ice. And it wasn’t all that surprising to see stud Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, clearly anointed the quarterback. But then came a moment you wondered if you would see at some point this month.
Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel were on the ice together.
Now, don’t think there was instant magic here. The puck was fumbled some, like it is during any special-teams practice. But you can see what might happen too when the top two picks from 2015 become linemates. The breakouts up ice will be fierce, the passes sharp, the puck movement breathtaking. Price-of-admission stuff.
“It’s fun to watch, that’s for sure,” said a laughing Ekblad. “I know as a defenseman I have to take care of my own end first and be responsible. But to be on the power play and see those guys and know it’s one quick pass away to a scoring chance, that’s pretty awesome right there.”
“We’re moving it around,” Eichel said. “There’s really so many good players who can be on the power play. It’s a very versatile group. it’s good to have that.”
There was some Eichel code in there that he wasn’t going to focus much on McDavid, which is how the Sabres’ star understandably rolls. And McDavid is somewhat similar. Both were talking lavishly about Auston Matthews after practice and noticeably clammed up when the subject of the other was brought up.
McDavid’s only thought on the power play was this: “There’s a lot of talent out there, it works out well that we’re kind of all different shots and there’s one-timers on the other side so it’s obviously a huge benefit.”
What is true is that this is a process of American players getting to know the Canadian players and vice versa. This group wasn’t all together until Sunday night. Its first exhibition game is Thursday in Quebec City. But while Monday’s opening practice was a huge curiosity to the players and coaches as well as the hockey world in general, Tuesday started to feel more like a team.
“It’s a lot different in just one day,” Eichel admitted. “We’ve spent time together now, went to dinner last night. We’re starting to get more comfortable together and as we do that the play will pick up even more.”
The second power-play unit featured Matthews, Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau, Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, Tampa Bay’s Jonathan Drouin and Philadelphia’s Shayne Gostisbehere. Pretty formidable on its own. Memo to Team NA opponents: Stay out of the penalty box.
McLellan clearly knew the McDavid-Eichel question was coming. So when I asked him if that unit was something he scratched on his legal pad in, oh, about May, he had a good chuckle.
“We’ve done a lot of scratching on it,” McLellan said. “What we did was look at where they’re comfortable and what positions they play with their club team. Everybody has a tendency to migrate to a certain spot on the power play. A lesson we learned at the World Championships in 2015 was that you can’t have duplication. You can’t have two guys migrating to the same spot and have success. Our staff has done a really good job of looking at that. It presented itself that those two wouldn’t migrate to the same spot in the offensive zone and that allowed them to play together.”
McDavid is a left-handed shot who will patrol the middle of the ice while Eichel goes from the right side and will hang wide looking for one-timers. Let’s see if Team NA puts him on his off wing to give the look you’ll likely see from Alex Ovechkin and Team Russia or Steven Stamkos and Team Canada. It’s the look Dan Bylsma should give Eichel more of come October.
Ekblad, who sees plenty of Eichel in the Atlantic Division, is more than a little happy to not be chasing him down the wing during this tournament.
“He’s got just an effortless stride,” Ekblad said. “He looks like he’s not even trying out there and he’s going pretty quick. I noticed today I was lollygagging a little bit and he took one extra stride and he beat me. He’s such a great player. Noticing that little stride is pretty obvious.”
Here’s another thing to ponder as we look ahead to the tournament: This might be the only time we ever see Eichel and McDavid play together.
Think about it. If there’s another World Cup in four years −no sure thing − and if the rules stay the same, McDavid and Eichel would again be on the same team. But the NHL and the Players’ Association will debrief this entire tournament once it’s over and you have to wonder if the rules will change to make this under-24 team, say, an under-22 group.
You know that’s what USA Hockey and Hockey Canada will want. Team USA General Manager Dean Lombardi, who grew close to Eichel during the 2015 World Championships in Prague, reportedly asked for and was denied an exemption to add Eichel for this World Cup. And even though Team Canada looks downright ridiculous on paper, you don’t think Mike Babcock & Co. would have liked to add McDavid to the likes of Sidney Crosby and friends?
Of course they would. The day is rapidly approaching where Eichel will be mainstay of Team USA and McDavid will be a godfather for Team Canada and never the twain shall meet as teammates again. Only foes.
Eichel and Matthews are friends who will become arch NHL rivals in the Buffalo-Toronto showdowns but will then periodically join forces for Team USA in the future. This very well could be it for Eichel and McDavid in the same dressing room so this tourney could provide moments to savor for a long time.