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McDavid, Eichel looking for wins, not sympathy

Top two picks of 2015 Draft seek positives amid rough starts for Oilers, Sabres

by Mike Zeisberger @zeisberger / Staff Writer

BUFFALO - Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel aren't looking for sympathy. Only wins.

Unfortunately for each of them, those have been few and far between this season.

It was 29 months ago that McDavid was taken by the Edmonton Oilers with the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft and Eichel was selected at No. 2 by the Buffalo Sabres. They were viewed as franchise players, the foundations that would pave the way to a successful future for each team. They each signed eight-year extensions with their respective teams this offseason, McDavid getting $100 million for an annual average value of $12.5 million and Eichel $80 million for an average annual value of $10 million. 

But the start of the 2017-18 season has been tough for McDavid's Oilers and Eichel's Sabres, who have yet to reach the expectations lumped on them when training camps opened 10 weeks ago.

After the Sabres defeated the Oilers 3-1 at KeyBank Center on Friday, Edmonton and Buffalo had a combined record of 14-26-6, a losing mark McDavid and Eichel each find unacceptable.

Video: Okposo, Lehner lead Sabres past Oilers, 3-1

"I don't think you can feel sorry for yourself at all," said McDavid, 20, who won the Hart Trophy as League MVP with 100 points (30 goals, 70 assists) last season. "We're the ones who got ourselves in this and we're the ones who's going to get ourselves out.

"We're learning about going through this. A lot of guys in this room, myself included, haven't gone the other way where we've expected to be good and we weren't very good. That's a new thing for a lot of guys. Like anyone else, it's not fun.

"It's not fun to come to the rink and lose."

The Oilers have stumbled to an 8-13-2 start this season with a minus-17 goal differential.

After the Oilers came within one win of reaching the Western Conference Final last season, hopes in the organization and among the fans were high that the Oilers would rocket out of the gate, not stagger.

McDavid's right eyebrow shot up in quizzical fashion when asked to identify the glass-half-full aspects of the Oilers' season thus far.

"Positives?" McDavid, the Oilers center, said incredulously. "I mean, we haven't been very good this year. I think everyone's made that very clear.

"When I think positives? Whew. I don't know."

Neither did Edmonton forward Patrick Maroon. Sitting a couple of locker stalls away from McDavid, he could only offer a sarcastic laugh upon hearing the question of what has gone right for the Oilers in a season of so many wrongs.

Eichel, whose Sabres finished 26th in the League last season but were expected to improve in 2017-18 under new coach Phil Housley, shares in McDavid's frustration and hasn't been shy to publicly show it.

The already simmering emotions of the Sabres center boiled over when a third-period goal by center Logan Couture gave the San Jose Sharks a 3-2 win against Buffalo on Oct. 28, spoiling Eichel's 21st birthday. Eichel reacted by snapping his stick over his knee in anger on his way to the dressing room after the final horn had sounded at KeyBank Center.

After a 5-4 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday, forward Jordan Nolan, who won two Stanley Cup championships with the Los Angeles Kings (2012, 2014), said the Sabres needed to be more accountable. With Buffalo (6-13-4) 30th in the NHL standings, Eichel agrees.

"I just think we should stop feeling sorry for ourselves, complaining or making excuses for what's going on," said Eichel, whose Sabres ended a seven-game losing streak with the victory against the Oilers.

"We just need to come together and work harder. I think that's always the key to success. When things aren't going right, start preparing better and working harder off the ice. Things usually translate."

Video: EDM@BUF: Eichel wires wrister past Brossoit

Oilers coach Todd McLellan remembers the steamy evening of June 26, 2015 in Sunrise, Florida, when Edmonton picked McDavid No. 1 and Buffalo took Eichel with the No. 2 pick.

He also recalls the first time McDavid and Eichel played each other in an NHL game. On March 2, 2016, McDavid's overtime goal was the difference in a 2-1 Oilers win at the Sabres.

On that occasion, the game was billed as Connor versus Jack. On Friday, 632 days after that inaugural meeting, there was no such hype.

"When we look back at their draft year, the draft is an individual thing," McLellan said. "It's purely where you're ranked, can you move ahead of an individual or will you fall. Teams, when they are drafting, are looking at lists that are purely based on one player. Once you pick that player, you're in a team environment. We have the luxury of having Connor here and he plays a tremendous team game. He's committed to the team. And he's done a real good job of leading.

"The first time [they played], there was a real contingent of [national] reporters and they made a lot of the Eichel-McDavid matchup. I think we're well beyond that now. This is Buffalo and Edmonton and both teams are looking for success."

For Housley, heaping the hopes of an entire organization on the shoulders of one individual player is unrealistic and unfair, to say the least.

Whereas one star can carry a team in basketball, where five or six players can gobble up the majority of available minutes, the same is rarely true in hockey. Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby always had the on-ice support of fellow forward Evgeni Malkin, much in the fashion of the Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

"It definitely has to be a collective effort," Housley said. "I've never seen one player win a game for a hockey team. It's a team effort.

"I think when you look at it, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are tremendous players, top players in this league and that's why they're going to get a lot of attention. But they're only one piece of the puzzle. You have to play together as a team ...

"You look at the great teams, there's always great support around them."

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