EDMONTON, Alberta -- Todd McLellan is a coach who's a big hockey fan too. He had a front-row seat for the phenomenon last month of Team North America and is disappointed as anyone that Jack Eichel won't be at Rogers Place Sunday night having a head-to-head matchup with former Team NA teammate Connor McDavid.
Eichel is out 6-8 weeks with a high ankle sprain and this is the second straight year the top two picks in the 2015 draft will not play in Edmonton. McDavid missed last year's game in Rexall Place while mending his broken clavicle.
"I feel for Jack. He's a great kid and a tremendous player," McLellan said after his Oilers practiced here Saturday. "I really enjoyed my time with him at the World Cup. It was special. You could see all the talent, all the enthusiasm he has for the game.
"As an NHL entity as the whole as entertainers, you really feel sorry for some of these guys getting injured like Connor did last year. The losers in it all are the fans. Certainly the Buffalo fans are going to miss him at home and so are his teammates. It happens. It takes a real strong mental approach as Connor had last year to overcome that type of thing. But getting to know Jack for a month, I think he'll have the tools to overcome that quickly."
McDavid agreed that the mental grind will be toughest for Eichel. McDavid was out about three months with his injury last year, missing 37 games.
"It's not fun. It's really hard and it's a lot harder mentally than it is physically," McDavid said. "The injury heals but mentally it's tough to stay there. Ultimately, it's just about being ready and coming back. It's a few things, you give credit and listen to the doctors and the team around you working with you to get better. It's also keeping yourself in shape. It's hard to do that when you're looking at two months, a month, whatever. It's hard to stay focused like that but it's obviously important."
Eight weeks out from the injury would take Eichel to Dec. 7. The Sabres host Edmonton Dec. 6 in KeyBank Center and it's possible there will be no McEichel matchups this season, thus meaning they would have met just once in their first two seasons in the NHL.
Winger Nick Baptiste got his first NHL recall Friday night after Rochester's 5-4 win over Hershey that opened the Amerks' season, and immediately joined the Sabres for the flight here Saturday morning. Baptiste might not play Sunday but Bylsma said it's likely he would get into a game on this road trip, which continues Tuesday in Calgary and Thursday in Vancouver.
"It's a culmination of everything I did during camp, rookie camp, main camp, preseason game," said Baptiste, a third-round pick in 2013. "Last night was a good step for me as well. I've shown I'm able to play here and I can play here."
Baptiste had 13 goals and 15 assists for the Amerks last year, his first as a pro. He had a goal and an assist in Friday's opener. Sabres assistant general manager Mark Jakubowski was at Blue Cross Arena for the game and broke the good news to Baptiste shortly after the final buzzer.
"My mom was in town. She was pretty emotional and excited," Baptiste said. "The first little while I was obviously excited but you've got to park it a little bit because you might be playing in two days. You've got to be ready to play. You try to get a good night's sleep because it was a long day today."
Baptiste was a linemate of Edmonton captain Connor McDavid during the 2014-15 season with the OHL's Erie Otters and said it would be a thrill to make his NHL debut against his former junior teammate.
"He can change a game when he's on and it's very rare he's not on," Baptiste said. "We've kept in touch. If I get to play him tomorrow, it would be a lot of fun. Wearing the 'C' now, he's got even more confidence. He's the leader of that team, the guy they will lean on."
The Sabres spent virtually all of Saturday's practice catching up on special teams work. Winger Kyle Okposo practiced fully and is expected to make his Buffalo debut Sunday on a line with Ryan O'Reilly and Sam Reinhart.
Sunday's game starts at 5 p.m. local time (7 p.m. Eastern) to accommodate a coast-to-coast broadcast in Canada, so the teams will be bypassing the customary morning skates. That's normally no big deal but it means the Sabres will not get a chance to look at Edmonton's new arena and get on the ice until the pregame warmup.
A Kanye West concert was in the building Saturday, so the Sabres and Oilers both practiced in the attached Rogers Community Rink that's part of the complex.
"I think there's some advantage in knowing the building and knowing some bounces but there is a uniformity amongst the rinks now that are fairly close," said Buffalo coach Dan Bylsma. "Certain buildings you know the zamboni door acts a certain way, you get a bump off the corner. For the most part, there's not a surprise the stanchion rattles and you could get a bounce there."