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Inside the NHL: Winnipeg standout Mark Scheifele has developed friendship with Eichel

It's fairly well-known who Jack Eichel's top friends are around the NHL. They all have backgrounds from the Boston area or the U.S. National Development Team. Think names such as Calgary's Noah Hanifin and Johnny Gaudreau, Toronto's Auston Matthews and Detroit's Dylan Larkin.

The one player Eichel has developed a tight bond with since his NHL career began – and whom he had no prior relationship with – is in town Sunday. And that's Winnipeg standout center Mark Scheifele.

On the surface, there's not much in common there. Scheifele is a Canadian, from Kitchener, Ont. He's three years older than Eichel at 25. They first met with Team North America at the 2016 World Cup camp.

Remember the infamous story of that first night: The staff brought the players together on a Montreal hotel rooftop, but the Americans stayed with the Americans and Canadians stayed with the Canadians.

Coaches realized they had to forcefeed some crossover and eventually got players from opposite sides of the border talking. Amazingly, that group became one of the most memorable teams in hockey history in just three weeks. Eichel and Scheifele still stay in touch regularly.

"It was really kind of weird how it came about," Scheifele told this corner at the All-Star Game in San Jose. "It actually started out that we found out we both did skills work in the offseason with [former NHL star] Adam Oates. So you start bonding and talking about that. And then we went to a Starbucks before all our games together in that tournament. That's how it started, but it's grown into a really good friendship."

It didn't hurt in Eichel's eyes either that Scheifele is a big New England Patriots fan who has a signed Tom Brady jersey in his condo.

"Jack is a guy I talk to on a regular basis, check in how he's doing, send him a note when he has a big game or whatever," Scheifele said. "He's a really smart guy, a guy whose game I really appreciate. I love watching him, really respect the way he plays. He's a guy, who still has only touched the surface. He's going to be a star in this league for a long time, but he's got a lot more in his game still."

"He's a guy I've been able to talk to all the time and not even about hockey," Eichel told me last season. "More about how things were going for him, things he likes doing. He's a real big hockey nerd and I give him credit. He eats, sleeps, breathes hockey and is a good guy to talk to."

The Jets were my choice to win the Stanley Cup in September, and I would still pick them as my choice to emerge from the uber-competitive Western Conference. The Cup choice now, however, has to be Tampa Bay.

But it would be no shock if Winnipeg won it all –- and made good on The Hockey News' 2015 prediction that the Jets would raise the Cup in four years.

The Jets are a team full of speed and savvy (think Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor) as well as size (Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers). And they have a terrific goaltending tandem in Connor Hellebuyck and Laurent Brossoit.

Scheifele entered Saturday's game in Ottawa leading the Jets in goals (27, two more than Laine) and second to Wheeler in points with 63. He entered Saturday at 12th in the NHL in scoring while Eichel was tied for 24th.

The Sabres posted a shootout victory against Winnipeg in the teams' first meeting in November and Scheifele knows the Jets will be in for another tough test. Both teams will be on back-to-backs.

"Jack was out those few games, it really hurt that team," Scheifele said. "When you lose a guy of his stature, it's going to be a tough loss. That's hockey and that's what I told him.

"You'll go through good times and bad times. The teams that go through that adversity the best come out ahead. They don't go through a big slide, they figure it out quick. That's what makes the best teams and that's where Buffalo has to get better. They have a good core of players, budding superstars really. This kind of experience is going to be really good for Jack and for their team."

Money matters on Matthews deal

So Auston Matthews signed an extension with the Leafs for five years and $58.17 million, putting his cap hit at just more than $11.6 million. Starting next season, that would put him second in the league to Connor McDavid's $12.5 million hit.

Matthews is getting $54.4 million of the deal in signing bonuses, which is major lockout protection for him but has to be concerning for teams without the big pockets the Leafs have. Look for ownership to move on that issue in the next collective bargaining agreement, limiting the percentage of signing bonuses that can be handed out in a deal.

It's also interesting to note how he took a shorter term – not the max eight-year deals that McDavid and Eichel got – and can go for another big deal when he's 26. By then, how much might he be worth?

And now the Leafs turn their attention to Mitch Marner, who won't get as much money as he thought. Had Matthews gone for an eight-year deal that would have paid a higher cap than McDavid, Marner could have been looking at $10 million-$11 million per season.

But Matthews and Leafs GM Kyle Dubas agreed to a shorter and cheaper deal in part to give the Leafs a better chance to win. With John Tavares already in the fold, it would have been difficult for the Leafs to keep all their key parts otherwise. While Marner's camp might have wanted Matthews money, the Leafs can now use a comparable such as Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov at $9.5 million to try to keep Marner's money down as well.

That's some really good work by Dubas and some understanding by Matthews of what it takes to keep a team together. Eichel's deal, by the way, should be looking better and better as it goes on at $10 million per season. The way the league is trending, he might be well underpaid by Years 5-8.

Mike Harrington: It's quite a show when Leafs come to town

1-2-3 from the '18 Draft

The top three players from last June's draft -- Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, Carolina forward Andrei Svechnikov and Montreal center Kasperi Kotkaniemi -- all scored a goal Tuesday night, marking just the fifth time in NHL history that had been done in the season immediately following their selection.

The feat had not been pulled off in nearly 34 years, since Mario Lemieux (Pittsburgh), Kirk Muller (New Jersey) and Ed Olczyk (Chicago) did it on April 7, 1985.

The last time three 18-year-old players each scored on the same day was March 20, 1984. That trio was Calgary's Dan Quinn, Boston's Cam Neely and Detroit's Steve Yzerman.

Around the boards

* The Minnesota media swarmed former Eden Prairie High star Casey Mittelstadt following the morning skate here Tuesday when the Sabres played the Wild. What's life been like in the NHL so far? Mittelstadt said walking on airplane tarmacs and up stairs into private charters has been the biggest eye-opener for him.

“I was riding on a bus a couple of years ago going to Edina,” Mittelstadt told the visitors. “That’s been one of the biggest differences for me.”

Casey brings the 'Team Mittelstadt' competitive spirit to Sabres

* Sidney Crosby played in his 916th game for the Penguins Saturday night in Tampa Bay, passing Lemieux for the most in team history.

* The Blues and Blackhawks got hot, which brought both teams back into the Western Conference playoff race. But so did the collapses of others. The Ducks entered the weekend having lost 18 of 20; the Avalanche have dropped 15 of their last 18; and the Canucks have lost eight of 12.

* More hating on the NHL schedule: Just one game Friday night (Carolina at New York) but eight matinees on Saturday. Like the Sabres, lots of teams are trying to cut down on their back-to-backs by not playing as many Friday nights.

And you wonder how much the league is looking to nudge up exposure in Europe by not having so many games at night in North America, which are on in the wee hours of the morning across the ocean.

* NBC is giving Mike Tirico a chance at hockey play-by-play for the first time in his long broadcasting career when he calls Wednesday's Chicago at Detroit game on NBC Sports Network. The network has used Tirico in host roles at last year's Stanley Cup final as well as this year's Winter Classic and All-Star Game. He will work with Ed Olczyk and Brian Boucher.

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