Jack Eichel is a confident hockey player. He wanted to show that assuredness during his interviews with NHL teams. When the subject of the draft came up, he told folks he is the best player available. He never thought anyone outside of the interview room would find out or even care.
Well, they did. The group included Connor McDavid, putting more intrigue into the prospects’ rivalry.
McDavid, who is ranked No. 1 by NHL Central Scouting and will be the first overall pick by Edmonton, took the comment and ran with it.
“Do I feel I’m the best player in the draft?” McDavid said Friday in HarborCenter. “I’m not sure. Maybe you’ll hear a different answer from Jack, but we’ll see.”
Though McDavid and Eichel have been linked for years, they’ve played in different leagues in different countries. Comparing their skills and stats took a subjective eye. If they both join the NHL right away, they’ll finally bring the debate head-to-head.
Buffalo fans certainly hope it happens. Eichel has eaten the wings, met the fans and had tours of the Sabres’ facilities, but he isn’t ready to commit to Buffalo just yet. He said he is still deciding whether to leap to the pros or return to Boston University for his sophomore season.
“I still have a lot of people to talk to,” Eichel said. “It’s definitely a tough decision to make.”
The 18-year-old plans to commit after the draft. The Sabres will select him second overall June 26, and they’ll eagerly await the answer.
“If it ends up that my heart tells me that I want to move on and try to play in the NHL, then that’s what I’m going to do,” Eichel said. “If my heart says I want to go back to BU, then that’s what I’m going to do.
“There’s pros and cons of both situations. That’s going to make my decision pretty tough. I don’t want to be playing professionally if I want to be back in college with BU. I don’t want to be at BU if I prefer to be playing professionally.”
In one collegiate season, the 18-year-old accomplished nearly everything possible in the NCAA. He proved he was the best player, becoming just the second freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award. He led his team to the Frozen Four. They lost in the championship game, possibly leaving Eichel with unfinished business.
While he is not certain he’s heading to the NHL, he is definitely ready. So is McDavid.
“They’re both going to get the opportunity to make their teams out of training camp,” said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting. “I’d be surprised if they didn’t.
“They’re both going to be big contributors in the National Hockey League. They’re going to make a difference for their team. They’re going to impact. They’re going to put up numbers and they’re going to be special players.”
The Sabres agree. Greg Royce, the director of amateur scouting, watches Eichel with wonder.
“You watch him and you just shake your head, ‘How does he do that?’ ” Royce said in First Niagara Center. “You have to replay it in your mind. His ability to pull away from back pressure and his skating, it’s elite already for the NHL. His ability to make plays where there was nothing, his hockey sense and skills, he’s going to be a very exciting player that Buffalo is going to be able to enjoy for many years.”
Royce wasn’t sure how the team should handle this week’s interview with Eichel. Everyone knows the Sabres will draft the center, so there were questions whether they should just welcome him to the organization. General Manager Tim Murray said no, let’s quiz him like any other prospect.
“To his credit, he went through it,” Royce said. “It was good interaction. He stuck around a little while afterward and we had lunch with him. He’s very excited about the possibility of Buffalo.”
Eichel was not excited that details of his interviews leaked. Murray was among those who spread the news, talking about it Thursday evening on WGR-AM 550.
“I’m pretty confident in my abilities,” Eichel said. “That wasn’t me comparing myself to Connor or anything like that. It was more of me thinking that I’m the best player in the draft. It’s more of just confidence in my own self.
“I didn’t really think that was a big deal. I thought that was pretty confidential within the team.”
It’s no secret fans are clamoring for Eichel. They’ve approached him all week, and he’s explored the city with open eyes.
“Everyone talks about Buffalo’s chicken wings, and I got a chance to enjoy those,” he said. “I’m just getting a feel for the city, meeting a lot of people. Obviously, everyone’s really welcoming here with the likelihood of me coming to Buffalo.”