This time last year, much of the narrative going into the 2014 World Junior Championship was around two underage players who would be competing for the top spot in the 2015 NHL Draft: Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. The two youngsters put on a show, each performing well in equally disappointing showings by the nation’s they compete for.
Going into the tournament, it seemed that the consensus was that McDavid was clearly ahead. Afterwards, opinions were much more split among hockey fans, and understandably so. Jack Eichel truly had outperformed Connor McDavid in the tournament. Though he played two less games than McDavid, Eichel finished with 5 points to McDavid’s 4, and where Eichel was one of Team USA’s best players in their quarterfinals loss to Russia, McDavid did not register a point in any of Canada’s three playoff games.
Some flaws in McDavid’s game were exposed, most noticeably his questionable defensive play and inability to stand up to any sort of roughness. Eichel on the other hand, came into the tournament as a physical specimen who held his own against players at least two years older than he. If you asked me in January of 2014 who I’d take with the first overall pick in 2015, I would have told you Jack Eichel.
Today, like most others, McDavid is at the top of my list. The improvements he’s made in the past year are immense. The growth both physically and mentally of the young player aren’t exactly surprising, but Connor McDavid makes at least one play per game for the Erie Otters that leaves you shaking your head–in a good way. McDavid is constantly in the Ontario Hockey League spotlight, continuously having his statistics flashed on TSN and Sportsnet, and at least to the outside world is unanimously better than Eichel.
Jack Eichel, on the other hand, stars for Boston University without much publicity. College hockey isn’t a hot commodity in the United States, so while the diehards will make trips to the closest competing school, most of the hockey world has no clue what’s going on in the Massachusetts-native’s career. As of the start of the World Juniors, Jack Eichel is tied for the NCAA-lead in points at 27 with Bentley’s Andrew Gladiuk. Gladiuk has played three more games than Eichel, and with all due respect to Atlantic Hockey he’s playing in a conference that’s much easier than Hockey East. Gladiuk is also 23 years old, and for what it’s worth Eichel is the only teenager in the top ten in NCAA scoring. Eichel, as one of the youngest players competing, is the best skater in NCAA hockey.
One of the biggest criticisms of his game is his compete level. Against some weaker competition in the NCAA he seems to float through shifts and he’ll let off the gas at times. At the USA Hockey World Junior Evaluation Camp, a short training camp held in Lake Placid every year, Eichel’s inconsistencies were on display. The first three games Eichel played in were part of the evaluation process, where USA Hockey cut their roster from two full teams to just one, and Eichel recorded just a single point in those games. Once the final roster took the ice with Sweden and Finland, Eichel was in rare form. Against the two nations that competed in the gold medal game last year, Eichel put up a startling 8 points in American routs of both squads.
Eichel completely understands how hard it is to win at this tournament, especially after being knocked out so early last season. When I spoke with him at that Evaluation Camp, Eichel brought up repeatedly how his experience in 2014 would help him improve in 2015. “I learned a lot from last year,” he said, “first of all, the skill level is so close and any team can beat anyone on any night so your compete level and discipline have to be at their top every night.”
Nobody questions Eichel’s talent, and no legitimate hockey publication makes an argument that he isn’t right below McDavid in 2015. Future considerations called him “dangerous with a strong selection of shots, plus elite-level playmaking skills that include the ability to find seams with impressive vision and deceptive passing…NHL star in the making.” One of the qualities Eichel highlighted when I asked him to describe his game: “I try to make my teammates better.”
With rumors swirling about a possible leave for the QMJHL’s Sea Dogs, Eichel was forced to address an unrelated issue just days before the start of the biggest tournament of his entire life. The distractions are unfortunately there, but if Eichel wants to reignite the debate over who the best undrafted player in the world is right now, he’ll need to dominate the World Juniors. This is his time to shine.