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Generational talents McDavid, Eichel living up to hype

Rookies creating excitement as first head-to-head matchup draws near

by Mike G. Morreale @MikeMorrealeNHL / Staff Writer

McDavid's breakaway score

MIN@EDM: Pouliot sets up McDavid for wrister

2/18/16: Benoit Pouliot races down the ice and passes to Connor McDavid, who buries home a wrister for the Oilers' first goal of the game

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Rookie centers Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel will be compared for as long as they're in the NHL.

Each was considered a generational talent at the time they were selected with the first two picks of the 2015 NHL Draft and they have produced well despite the pressure of high expectations.

McDavid, selected No. 1 by the Edmonton Oilers, is the third-youngest (19 years, 41 days) in the NHL to play at least one game this season. Eichel, chosen No. 2 by the Buffalo Sabres, is the fifth-youngest (19 years, 118 days).

McDavid and Eichel are scheduled to play against each other for the first time this season March 1 at First Niagara Center in Buffalo. McDavid missed the Sabres-Oilers game Dec. 4 while recovering from a broken left clavicle. Eichel had one goal and four shots on goal in a 4-2 Oilers victory.

Oilers left wing Taylor Hall said it's only natural the media will want to create some buzz about the first regular-season NHL game between McDavid and Eichel.

"That's something [the media] make up," Hall said. "I don't think it's something Connor thinks about each night before he goes to bed. He's a competitive guy and wants to do well, but I'm sure it's not to beat Jack Eichel. It's to do well for his team and himself."

While there will be a lot of attention on that March 1 game, that level of hype could be ratcheted even higher if McDavid and Eichel are named to Team North America for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

"It's going to be a great thing for the game," Eichel told the Buffalo News when asked about the World Cup. "Our goal as a League should be to grow the game and this is something that can definitely help it. It's just going to be a great experience for everyone involved."

Playing together for Team North America could give McDavid and Eichel an opportunity to learn something new about the other, and as a result gain a greater respect for what each has gone through this season.

"If I had the opportunity to be part of it, it would be great for my family to be able to come see that. It's a great opportunity to play against the world's best," Eichel said.

McDavid recently was asked if responding to questions about Eichel ever gets old.

"[Eichel] is having a good year himself and he should be happy about that," McDavid said. "I wouldn't text him or anything like that but we'll have to become a little closer if we're on [Team North America] for the World Cup. I mean, I don't look at him as an enemy or rival or anything like that. He's a young guy in the League just like me and we're trying to help our teams."

McDavid has 27 points in 23 games. His average of 1.17 points per game is the highest by a rookie to play at least 20 games since Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (1.31) and Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (1.26) in 2005-06. McDavid also has a 20.8 shooting percentage while averaging 17:54 of ice time each game.

Ovechkin averaged 21:37 per game as a rookie and Crosby averaged 20:07.

Perhaps most impressive is McDavid's enhanced numbers at even strength. He ranks in the top three among rookies in 5-on-5 assists per 60 minutes (1.74) and 5-on-5 points per 60 minutes (3.29). The Oilers have a 51.7 shot-attempts percentage when McDavid is on the ice, and 45.0 when he's not.

McDavid had two goals and had three assists Feb. 11 against the Toronto Maple Leafs in his most productive game of the season. He also assisted on all three goals by right wing Jordan Eberle or his first NHL hat trick. McDavid, Eberle and linemate Benoit Pouliot combined for 13 points against Toronto.

Video: TOR@EDM: McDavid nets two, five points in victory

"Chemistry, like I've said before, is a thing that doesn't just happen," Eberle said. "It's something that grows over time and we've only played a short stint of games here. We have lots of hockey left."

Since returning to the lineup after missing 37 games because of the broken clavicle, McDavid has five goals and 15 points in 10 games.

"You can have the speed and skill but you have to have the brain to match it," Oilers coach Todd McLellan said. "I've seen a lot of skaters who can skate 100 miles per hour, can stickhandle, and then I put them in a game and they're nowhere to be found.

"[Anaheim Ducks assistant coach] Paul MacLean used to call those players morning glory. You come out and watch these guys in the morning and you think, 'Wow.' Then you watch them at night and not even know they played."

Like McDavid, Eichel also is noticeable when on the ice. He has taken his game to another level since the December holiday break with eight goals, 17 assists, 11 power-play points and an 11.8 shooting percentage in the past 26 games.

Eichel is tied for first among rookies in power-play goals (six), and is second in assists (24) and points (41), fourth in goals (17), and third in primary assists (16). He is first with 173 shots on goal and ranks first in ice time (18:46) among rookie forwards.

He's scored nine of his goals on wrist shots, and at no time was that wicked wrist shot more evident than on his first-period goal in a 4-1 win against the Colorado Avalanche on Feb. 14. After collecting the puck in the neutral zone, Eichel circled back through the defensive zone and skated up the left wing boards and then buried a wrist shot that went through the legs of Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie and goaltender Semyon Varlamov.

Video: COL@BUF: Eichel rips puck between four legs for goal

Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said he would like to see Eichel shoot even more. The Sabres have a 51.6 shot-attempts percentage when Eichel is on the ice and 47.6 percent when he's not.

"He's had better opportunities to score on than that [against the Avalanche], but that's a great example of what he can do and attack on his speed there and being an aggressive shooter," Bylsma said. "It's not a great angle but he gets a shooting lane, goes five-hole on the defender and squeaks it through the goalie. It's a pretty vicious shot he's taking. The hard, heavy wrist shot."

Eichel is on pace for 24 goals on 236 shots. To provide some perspective, Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane scored 21 goals on 191 shots as a rookie in 2007-08; Crosby had 39 goals on 278 shots in 2005-06; Ovechkin had 52 goals on 425 shots in 2005-06.

It's interesting to note that when Eichel has been on the ice this season the Sabres have 608 shots on goal. In Kane's rookie season the Blackhawks had 866 shots when he was on the ice. The Penguins had 991 shots with Crosby on the ice as a rookie.

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