Tuesday, May 2, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Jack Eichel won’t bite.
He knows the questions are coming. The narrative will be used extensively for the next two weeks.
Fair or not, it was going to happen at some point.
There was going to come a day where Eichel would stand opposite Connor McDavid somewhere in the playoffs — whether it had been a pipe-dream Stanley Cup Final between the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres, or a second-round series between the Oilers and Vegas Golden Knights.
The latter would’ve never been on the radar in 2015, for obvious reasons, but the hockey gods have dictated that to be the course of action. The top two picks from the 2015 NHL Draft — McDavid at No. 1, Eichel at No. 2 — will meet in a playoff series for the first time when Vegas and Edmonton begin their series Wednesday.
“They’ve got a really good hockey team over there, and we have a really good team over here,” Eichel said. “It’s going to be a competitive series.”
Eichel doesn’t mind talking about McDavid. It’s not like there’s a disdain. The two got to know each other well ahead of the 2015 draft, taking visits with teams, knowing they would be the top of that class.
But the mutual respect doesn’t extend to hanging out at each other’s houses in the summer.
“That’s probably to the extent of what we spent together,” Eichel said, referring to the weeks leading up to the 2015 draft. “We had only seen each other twice a year (after that).”
Teams destined for the bottom of the 2015 standings hoped to have a chance at McDavid.
The Oilers were one of those teams. Not the worst, though. The Buffalo Sabres held that honor with 54 points (23-51-8) that season. The Arizona Coyotes were two points ahead of Buffalo.
While Buffalo had the best odds to win the draft lottery (20%), and the Coyotes at 13.5%, the Oilers were third at 11.5%.
McDavid had 120 points (44 goals, 76 assists) in just 47 games with Erie of the Ontario Hockey League in 2014.
The runner up? The Hobey Baker winner Eichel — the award given to the best hockey player in the NCAA — who had 71 points (26 goals, 45 assists) in 40 games with Boston University.
The ping pong balls, of course, bounced Edmonton’s way, and the rest is history. Buffalo, who tanked its way to the best chance of getting the eventual two-time (and soon to be three) Hart Trophy winner, dropped to second and took Eichel.
Eichel admits what McDavid has done to this point is otherworldly. At 26, McDavid is already 150 points away from 1,000 in his career. He’s the one with the most realistic chance of breaking Wayne Gretzky’s points record of 2,857.
McDavid’s 153 points this season were the most in the modern era, and the most since Mario Lemieux had 161 in 1995-96.
“What he’s done in this league is historical,” Eichel said.
McDavid went on to establish himself as the best player in the world. Eichel, try as he did, never got Buffalo to the playoffs.
Then the trade happens. Buffalo sends Eichel to Vegas in November 2021. Now, they go from facing each other twice a year, to a heavyweight bout at least four times a season.
“I think it kind of ends at that,” Eichel said. “You play hockey every night and whoever your opponent is, if it’s a divisional opponent in Edmonton, that’s the team you’re focused on.”
Edmonton is in the postseason for the third time in the McDavid era, making the Western Conference Final for the first time last season. The Oilers were swept by the eventual champion Colorado Avalanche.
Simply put, it hasn’t been all roses for McDavid in his quest for a first Stanley Cup.
Eichel’s first postseason run was a positive one after a rough Game 1 against Winnipeg. He finished with five points (three goals, two assists), including a two-goal game in Game 3.
This time of year is why the Golden Knights wanted Eichel — to be the game changer that he’s capable of being. The road getting there was eventually going to have to go through McDavid and the Oilers.
“I think obviously Connor is on his own. That’s no disrespect to Jack,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “I think everyone would be talking about that matchup. Whether it be fair to Jack or not, it doesn’t matter. It’s playoff hockey. You’ve got to outplay the guy across from you, typically, if you want to advance.”
As far as Eichel versus McDavid being on the ice at the same time, that might not happen as often. Expect to see plenty of Mark Stone or William Karlsson’s line trying to slow down McDavid.
But it’s not a stretch to say whoever has the better series is going to be the reason their team advances to the Western Conference Final.
Eichel has long been in McDavid’s shadow. Resumewise, at the moment, he’ll stay there. That all changes if Eichel plays a key role in the Golden Knights preventing the best player in the world from winning the Stanley Cup for another year.
“We know we’re going to have a really tough opponent here,” Eichel said. “It’s going to be competitive. I think it’s a great challenge for our group and everyone is looking forward to it.”