When Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin came into the league together in the fall of 2005 following the lockout that canceled the 2004-2005 season, the headlines were all the same. They touted Crosby and Ovechkin as rivals based on their talent, but the two never really acknowledged that they were actual rivals. Each is almost robotic in their abilities, but they play entirely different games – Sid being the finesse playmaker, and Alex being the dynamic goal-scorer – and while Crosby is a center, Ovechkin plays the wing. Now, a new rivalry is budding, but this one is between two players who play similar games at the same position. Plus, this one has actually been acknowledged by the players themselves.
By now, you have most likely heard of Connor McDavid, the 17 year-old hockey phenom from Newmarket, Ontario. Having grown up just outside of Toronto, Connor grew up a Maple Leafs fan, but looked up to the aforementioned Sidney Crosby and his Pittsburgh Penguins as well. When the kid met “The Kid,” Crosby said of McDavid, “He reminds me of me.” Although midget hockey does not have much to do with a player’s success in junior hockey, let alone NHL hockey, it is worth mentioning that McDavid had an insane 209 points (79G, 130A) in his last year of midget hockey before joining the OHL. Although on a much smaller stage, those numbers especially reflect McDavid’s incredible vision and passing expertise, because even in midget hockey 130 assists is uncommon.
McDavid was granted exceptional status and was allowed to enter the Ontario Hockey League as a 15 year-old. He amassed 66 points in his rookie season in the OHL for the Erie Otters while his peers of the same age were still playing midget hockey back home. This past season, the center scored 28 goals and added an astounding 71 assists for 99 points in 56 games, having missed time to play in the World Junior Under-20 tournament. He should have been playing for the U-18 team, but he and fellow former exceptional status player Aaron Ekblad were playing with guys above their age group internationally. Those are some big accolades for the “Next One,” a nickname given to McDavid as a play on the name “Great One” which was given to Wayne Gretzky.
McDavid will be playing in his third OHL season this fall as a 17 year-old. He is expected to be the most dominant player in the league and quite possibly in the entire Canadian Hockey League which encompasses the OHL, Quebec Major Junior League, and Western Hockey League. He is arguably the best Canadian prospect since Crosby (even surpassing Tavares when he was hyped up while playing junior hockey) and many have predicted that he will go first overall in the 2015 draft. But in this past year, another top prospect has jumped leaps and bounds to contest the uncontested McDavid on what name will be called first.
His name is Jack Eichel, a center from Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Eichel is essentially the American McDavid, though their styles of play are slightly different. Having grown up outside of Boston, Eichel grew up watching the Bruins. In fact, his midget hockey team was called the Boston Junior Bruins. And although the NHL team that drafts him next summer likely won’t be the one in Boston, Eichel will be playing for a Boston hockey team this fall when he starts what will likely be a short college career at Boston University.
In 53 games with the U.S. National U18 Team this past season, Eichel scored 38 goals and 49 assists for 87 total points. He also played for both the U18 and U20 American teams in the World Junior tournament. In the U-20 tournament, he and McDavid were on rival international teams and were enjoying the hype and the spotlight despite being underaged players.
Unlike Crosby and Ovechkin though, Eichel has gone on record talking about McDavid as his adversary:
I look at it like it is a competition. I do want to go first overall. If he goes first overall, so be it. But I want to go first overall. He is my competition.
There was even talk that Eichel wanted to have his QMJHL rights (Halifax Mooseheads) traded to the OHL specifically so he could go head to head with McDavid this season. But that was deemed almost impossible, because of the process that would have to take place for that to happen. So Eichel will go the college route for his development.
What will be interesting is to see where these future superstars will play in the NHL. A case can certainly be made for Connor McDavid becoming a part of the Buffalo Sabres next summer at the draft in Florida. Though Eichel is rising exponentially, McDavid will almost definitely still go first, and Buffalo is most likely going to finish in the bottom five of the league this season. The order of selection in the top 3 of next year’s draft will be determined by lottery. Therefore Buffalo will have a very good shot at the first pick, and a one-two punch with McDavid and Reinhart could turn out to be just as good as a Crosby-Malkin in Pittsburgh. The recent signing of Matt Moulson could pay off tremendously as well, since he would most likely be flanking McDavid on the top line. Erie Otters GM Sherry Bassin spoke on Buffalo radio earlier this year about Connor McDavid and the possibility of him becoming a Sabre. Also, McDavid attended a Sabres game during this past season and received much attention from fans who are eager to see him in blue and gold.
As for Eichel, Calgary seems like a great fit. Flames president Brian Burke is very high on him:
Even if you were an alien from a spaceship who had never seen hockey, and you watched this kid, you would say, ‘Good Lord, that’s a talented athlete.’
– Brian Burke on Jack Eichel
Eichel plays a pressing offensive game and plays big, which is something the Flames want to make a part of their identity – size and strength. Sam Bennett can play the wing in addition to center, so he could be part of a dominant first line with Eichel. Burke would absolutely love to have a guy like Eichel on his team (especially since he loves American players) and the lottery could help him get the guy he wants at number two despite where the always-competitive finish in the standings.
No matter what teams McDavid and Eichel end up playing for, they will be the franchise players for those respective teams. They will likely remain rivals for each other even if they are playing inter-conference. But what is guaranteed is that both will have all eyes on them this season from the hockey world in anticipation of the 2015 NHL Draft in Florida. Despite the fact that they are a year away from their draft, it’s hard not to imagine what kind of illustrious careers each will have. And it would be amazing if McDavid and Eichel eventually face off against each other in a Stanley Cup Final.