Team North America has two exhibition games and five more practices remaining before officially opening the World Cup against Finland on Sept. 18 in Air Canada Centre. With that in mind, coach Todd McLellan has promised he’ll try different line combinations during the camp and he unveiled a big one during practice Friday in Quebec City: Jack Eichel joining Johnny Gaudreau at wing with Connor McDavid at center.
That trio is likely to get the call during Sunday’s rematch against Team Europe in Montreal’s Bell Centre.
McLellan is using Eichel and McDavid together on the No. 1 power play, but that unit only saw about a minute of ice time in Thursday’s 4-0 win over Team Europe. Team North America scored three of its goals in a span of less than five minutes in the second period and McLellan is looking to generate more offense from his club.
“People say we’re the future of the league, but it’s nice to play with these guys,” Eichel told Canadian outlet Postmedia after practice Friday in Videotron Centre. “You might never be able to do it again.”
Said McDavid: “If it’s us three, then perfect. Who better than to play with than those two?”
Eichel has been playing with Gaudreau since the start of camp and assisted on the Calgary winger’s goal Thursday night.
“I haven’t played wing in a while, I’m kind of excited about it,” Eichel said. “It’s something different. Playing with two players like that, it’s pretty enticing.”
“We were quick, we had the puck but we didn’t do much with it,” McLellan said Friday. “We didn’t generate many shots on goal and second chances so there’s areas we have to improve in. Perhaps that comes with some new line combinations, perhaps with some new structure.”
Eichel, who tied for game-high honors with four shots on goal in Thursday’s game, will certainly be able to take some of the faceoff load away from McDavid when the need arises. Asked about making the move to put McDavid and Eichel together, McLellan cited “overall vision and hockey IQ” as strengths of the new trio.
“That would lead us to believe they can create and make plays,” McLellan said. “We’ve got a couple real quick skaters there, a playmaker, the ability to win faceoffs left and right-handed sides so we should have some possession. I thought Jack shot the puck a lot last night, which was a positive side. Connor used his speed well ... and Johnny had the puck a lot made some good plays. We should be able to create a good combination.”
“I don’t think there’s anybody on the team I wouldn’t mind playing with,” Eichel said. “Everyone is a great player here. Everyone has the same mindset. Those two are really great players.”
Eichel had been playing with Gaudreau and Brandon Saad. McLellan’s other key move Friday was reuniting former junior linemates Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, stars in Halifax of the Quebec League, and putting them with Edmonton center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Winnipeg’s Mark Schiefele went back to his natural center position between Auston Matthews and Brandon Saad. The fourth line was Sean Couturier between Dylan Larkin and Vincent Trochek.
Larkin was a healthy scratch in Thursday’s game but J.T. Miller took a shot off the hand during the game and his status could be uncertain for Sunday.