Every single superstar in every single sport is stepping into his own unique situation when he gets drafted to his new team. Every sports franchise has their own unique dynamics with regards to personnel, coaching, management, fan expectations, and locations. Due to this, every potential franchise player is tasked with navigating his way through the ups and downs and the ebbs and flows of the beginning of his promising career.
For the NHL’s Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres, things will be no different. They will forever be linked to each other due to their long-running battle to go first overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, but the two highly touted youngsters are now set to go their separate ways and begin to carve out their own individual careers, much like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin did a decade ago.
McDavid is a Canadian who will be playing in the Western Conference, and Eichel is an American who will be a member of the Eastern Conference. Their paths are sure to collide at least twice a year during the NHL season, and at least every four years at the international stage. Outside of those rare days, they will be under their own separate microscopes. Allow me to explain.
The Sabres and the Oilers are two teams who have both found themselves in the midst of a heavy rebuilding process, but they each travelled very different routes to get there. As a result, the expectations for the two players will vary.
In McDavid’s case, it feels as though he represents Edmonton’s last hope. In 2010, the Oilers selected Taylor Hall first overall. Then in 2011, it was Ryan Nugent-Hopkins who was the reward for their ineptitude. They followed that up by winning the draft lottery in 2012, leapfrogging the Columbus Blue Jackets, and nabbing Nail Yakupov with the first overall pick.
The expectations for all three of those players was that they would be the one to turn the franchise around. In 2010, it was thought that surely, Hall would be the type of dynamic talent who could shift the franchise’s fortunes. But he didn’t. Then in 2011, it was thought that surely, Nugent-Hopkins would be the reliable playmaking center who would serve as Hall’s long-term pivot, and that that combination would lead them to success. But it didn’t. Then in 2012, it was thought that surely, Yakupov’s addition would finally be what it took to give them enough depth to get them over the hump. But it didn’t. And now here the Oilers are for the fourth time in six summers, having just picked first overall and again hoping that this time will be different.
If it doesn’t work for the Oilers now that McDavid is there, it probably won’t work for them with anybody. They will officially be out of excuses. McDavid has all of the pressure in the world on him to be the savior that the Oilers have long been searching for. He will immediately become the team’s first line center, and while new coach Todd McLellan may try to shelter him when he can, other teams will be doing everything in their power to match their top players up against McDavid in hopes of neutralizing him.
Just within his own division, McDavid will be tasked with going up against Drew Doughty, Mark Giordano, Marc-Eduard Vlasic, Hampus Lindholm, Dan Hamhuis, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. He’ll line up at center against the likes of Anze Kopitar, Ryan Kesler, Martin Hanzal, and Logan Couture. He’ll be thrown straight into the fire. He certainly has his work cut out for him, but he will have help. Even though he wasn’t the one to drag the Oilers to success, Hall has proven to be an elite left winger in this league. Jordan Eberle has similarly established himself as a top-line winger on the right side. There’s some hope that Nugent-Hopkins will be able to take some tough match-ups away from him, but I’m skeptical of the amount of success that those efforts will produce.
The weight of the city of Edmonton is on the shoulders of this teenager. This hockey crazed city that once saw Wayne Gretzky lead their beloved Oilers to dynastic heights is now putting all of their pent up frustration and energy in the hopes that McDavid will be the one to turn it all around. The pressure is on.
In Buffalo, Eichel will not face quite the same amount of pressure that his counterpart will in Alberta. The Sabres have never won a Stanley Cup, but they have tasted success much more recently than the fans in Edmonton have. Lest we forget that the Sabres were a playoff team just four springs ago.
After going all in and failing miserably with the free agent process in 2011-2012, the Sabres are now entering what’s really only the third season of the rebuild process, even though it feels like it’s been longer. They’ve stocked themselves up with a deep farm system. Before landing their franchise cornerstone in Eichel, the Sabres compiled an impressive group of prospects including: Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen, Hudson Fasching, Zemgus Girgensons, Justin Bailey, Mark Pysyk, and Jake McCabe.
Such impressive prospect depth has allowed them to move other high-end prospects such as Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Zadorov, J.T. Compher, Joel Armia, and Brendan Lemieux to bring in established but young NHLers such as Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, and Zach Bogosian.
With those acquired players and some of the aforementioned prospects already establishing themselves as NHL players, the Sabres core includes O’Reilly, Kane, Girgensons, Tyler Ennis, Reinhart, Ristolainen, and Bogosian even if Eichel doesn’t exist. That’s far from terrible.
The acquisition of O’Reilly in particular takes a huge load off Eichel’s shoulders. New coach Dan Bylsma has hinted that O’Reilly will enter the season as the first line center. He’s a two-way force who has years of experience going up against other team’s top players and outplaying them as a member of the Colorado Avalanche. Bylsma will do everything in his power to use O’Reilly’s defensive prowess to make Eichel’s rookie year a much easier adjustment process than it otherwise might have been.
Eichel will also have plenty of offensive help, even from the second line. It’s certainly feasible that Kane will be on his left wing with Ennis on his right side on opening night. That’s not quite as good as what McDavid will have in Hall and Eberle, but keep in mind that this will be Buffalo’s second line while McDavid’s will be Edmonton’s top line. The difficulty of the match-ups will be much more subdued for Eichel.
If Eichel isn’t what the scouts say he is, it certainly will be a considerable blow to Buffalo’s future. There is absolutely no denying that, but that blow will be nowhere near as catastrophic as the one dealt to Edmonton if McDavid fails to measure up to his lofty expectations. As such, there’s a much lower level of pressure on Eichel than there is on McDavid heading into their careers as NHL players. That could change, but for now it’s hard to argue that that isn’t the case. I can’t wait to see how both players handle the pressure and watch their battle for rookie supremacy unfold.
While McDavid may be faced with more pressure than Eichel as NHL players, the reverse is true when it comes to their places in their respective international programs. Again, we’ll start with McDavid.
Hockey Canada is arguably in the best shape it has ever been in. Recent Olympic gold medals in 2002, 2010, and 2014 have somewhat pacified the nation of crazed hockey fans. While it would be ideal for them to have McDavid pan out perfectly and have Sidney Crosby pass the baton as the face of Hockey Canada to him, it won’t be the end of the world if things don’t work out that way. There are a whole host of other young candidates to lead Canada to future international championships.
If McDavid doesn’t work out as a superstar, Canada’s center depth probably won’t even notice. Tyler Seguin, John Tavares, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Claude Giroux, Nathan MacKinnon, Steven Stamkos, Patrice Bergeron, Logan Couture, are all centers under the age of 28. In the event that McDavid busts, I have a very hard time believing that they won’t find four of those players to be capable of manning the pivot slots on their roster.
Even if they don’t, it won’t be catastrophic if Canada goes a couple cycles without winning it all. They’ve been so dominant of late that even if they don’t win again until 2026, they’ll still be the winningest national team of the millennium. McDavid being “the guy” for them would be excellent, but it’s very very far from necessary.
Eichel, on the other hand, has the weight of USA Hockey on his shoulders. Team USA hasn’t claimed Olympic gold since the Miracle on Ice in 1980, and American hockey fans such as myself are getting sick and tired of having that victory as the only one we can cling to.
Still, USA Hockey is stronger than it’s ever been. All that’s missing is the elite, world class center that can match up against the top lines of Canada, Sweden, and Russia and hold their own. Eichel has the potential to be that player. The wings and defense units are looking outstanding for the future. Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Zach Parise, James van Riemdsyk, Bobby Ryan, T.J. Oshie, Brandon Saad, and Kyle Okposo give the U.S. arguably the best group of wingers in the world. On defense, Noah Hanifin and Seth Jones are set to join the other young stars such as Justin Faulk, Jacob Trouba, Ryan McDonagh, John Carlson, and a few others.
All that’s missing is that truly elite two-way center, and if Eichel fails to become that, USA Hockey’s hopes of ever claiming an international championship at the highest level take a massive hit.
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Whatever happens, the hockey world is certainly in for a treat this season as this two young phenoms embark on their long-anticipated careers. It’s going to be something that’s looked back on for decades as a a rarity in hockey history, and we’re all lucky enough to be the generation that witnesses it.
Let us know in the comments what your thoughts on McDavid and Eichel are. Who do you think will be better, and why? And what do you think of the pressure that each one faces heading in to the season?
Thanks for reading.