For Connor McDavid, the decision doesn’t get any easier. He goes directly to the National Hockey League without thinking twice. He has nothing to prove in junior hockey, and college doesn’t factor into his equation. He’s almost certain to be selected first overall and play next season for the Edmonton Oilers.
It’s an entirely different situation for Jack Eichel, the presumptive second pick overall that belongs to the Buffalo Sabres. Eichel also has little to prove after leading the nation in scoring as a freshman, winning the Hobey Baker Award and leading Boston University to the NCAA championship game.
The fact he has options places him in an enviable position, but it will not make his decision any easier in the months ahead. Sabres fans are hoping he will play in Buffalo next season. While that could happen, and nobody should be surprised if it does happen, it’s hardly the slam dunk you see for McDavid.
So let’s break it down.
Eichel’s first option is turning professional immediately after the NHL draft. It would allow him to fulfill a lifelong dream and turn him into a very wealthy teenager. He would immediately become a star and major building block on a young, developing team that’s looking to turn around the franchise.
Buffalo would give him all the ice time he needed and more. In fact, he might end up playing in more situations with the Sabres that he did last year while leading the country with 71 points, including 26 goals. He also could be reunited with linemate Evan Rodrigues, who signed with the Sabres as a free agent.
Rodrigues was the second-leading scorer (21 goals, 61 points in 41 games) in the nation largely because he played the leading scorer. Still, the two must have had very good chemistry to pile up 132 points in one season. If Rodrigues, who turns 22 in July, is ready for the NHL, it would make Eichel's transition that much easier.
That would work for Eichel. It also would work for the Sabres. And we shouldn’t forget how it would work from a business standpoint, either.
The NHL, above everything else, is a multibillion-dollar industry. It’s the first rule players learn after spending enough time in the league and adjusting to the fame and competition. Owners and general managers are doing what best for them. Players and agents need to make decisions based on what works for them.
By signing next season, Eichel would start the clock on when he would be eligible for unrestricted free agency. Under the collective bargaining agreement, any player who has played seven seasons or is 27 years old can become a UFA. By starting now, Eichel would be 25 years old after his seventh season.
Assuming he produces the way many expect, he’ll end up signing a monster contract at an earlier age. It also would lead him back to the bargaining table a year sooner for another contract. So why would he return to BU and play for free while risking the possibility of a career-ending injury?
Well, that leads to the other side of the issue.
Eichel has played only one season, one spectacular season, in college. He’s still growing into his body. He’s still developing as a person. He played under pressure in college, but it was largely away from the glare of the national spotlight. It allowed him to make mistakes and play through lulls that come with young players.
Although there’s no disputing his overall productivity last season, he had problems with consistency that are common among freshmen. They tend to become more consistent, and more confident, with age. Eichel has room to develop. Another year or more would make for a smoother transition to the NHL.
Teenagers have a much harder time working through slumps at the professional level than they do in college or juniors. There are no easy nights in the NHL. The game is faster. The players are stronger. Defensive systems are much more difficult to break down. There are really good players on every team.
It’s hard for any young player to break through unless he’s surrounded by talent. It’s exponentially more difficult when he’s expected to be a savior. The Sabres spent two years losing with the idea they would get a top pick. Although most eyes were on McDavid, Eichel also was viewed as a franchise player.
While Eichel could overcome such obstacles, he would come into the NHL a more polished player if he stayed in school. It also wouldn’t hurt Eichel to play another year at BU while Buffalo cleaning up its mess. The Sabres are likely headed for another long year with or without him. He shouldn't be subjected to that much losing.
Why make him suffer?
The Sabres could continue building their team while he enjoys the success that comes with playing for one of the top teams in the country, thus sparing him the indignity that will come with playing in Buffalo. The Sabres would be more ready for him when he turns professional. He would be more ready for them, too.
It increases the likelihood he would make a positive impact in his first NHL season, whenever that may be, and give him a better chance of long-term success.
By the time he retires, assuming he plays to expectations, he will have more money than he could count. The chance he would suffer a career-ending injury in college exists, but it’s minimal. The chance of catastrophe could be greater if he played against professionals than the college kids he dominated.
Plus, there’s the maturity factor. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that he’s 18 years old and should be enjoying his time with his college buddies. He can always go back and get a degree, but this is the only time in his life in which he can have fun playing the game and living the life of a college student.
People his age are prone to making poor decisions. There are life lessons to be learned before adulthood. College helps the process. Kids can make mistakes without them being publicized across the country. Eichel may have won hockey’s Heisman Trophy, but he doesn’t make headlines like Jameis Winston.
Patrick Kane immediately played like a veteran, but it took him several years to grow into a man away from the ice. Jonathan Toews was mature when he arrived, perhaps because he played two years in college. If you think Toews didn’t enjoy himself during his time at North Dakota, you’re kidding yourself.
Toews, the third pick overall, was ready to play in the NHL. The two years in college made him more up equipped to be a leader. Different players mature at different rates under different environments. There are too many unknown variables to predict how he will respond after turning professional.
Eichel could be ready. The parent in me believes he should stay in school. The businessman in me believes he should jump to the NHL. What if he stays in school and gets injured? What if he takes a step back and has a poor year? What if he doesn’t continue developing?
His decision shouldn’t be based on What Ifs. It also shouldn’t be based on what’s best for the Sabres or their fan base. It should be based on what’s right for him. For his sake, here's hoping he makes the right choice.
Here are some other forwards, in alphabetical order, who stayed in college for more than one year before starting their NHL careers:
David Backes (Blues), Mankato, three years.
Brian Gionta (Sabres), Boston College, four years.
Dany Heatley (Panthers), Wisconsin, two years.
T.J. Oshie (Blues), North Dakota, three years.
Zach Parise (Wild), North Dakota, two years.
Joe Pavelski (Sharks), Wisconsin, two years.
Drew Stafford (Jets), North Dakota, three years.
Paul Statsny (Blues), Denver, three years.
Thomas Vanek (Wild), Minnesota, two years.