Dylan Larkin may have been overshadowed by Jack Eichel at their respective colleges last season, but that no longer seems to be the case as rookies in the NHL.
Larkin, selected in the first round (No. 15) of the 2014 NHL Draft by the Detroit Red Wings, is the first teenager to play for the Red Wings since Jiri Hudler in 2003-04. Larkin has spent the majority of the season on the top line with Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader.
Eichel, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft by the Buffalo Sabres, has teamed with Larkin in the past with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program and with several United States teams at international tournaments.
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On Tuesday, Larkin and Eichel will go head-to-head for the first time as professionals when the Red Wings face the Sabres at Joe Louis Arena (7:30 p.m. ET; TVA Sports, SNO, SNP, MSG-B, BELL TV, FS-D).
They last met on Oct. 25, 2014, when Eichel scored once to help lead Boston University to a 3-2 victory over the University of Michigan. Larkin had two assists in the loss at Agganis Arena in Boston.
In 24 games, Larkin leads NHL rookies with 10 goals and a plus-14 rating, and is third with 18 points.
It hasn't surprised Eichel that Larkin has been able to impress in his first NHL season.
"I knew he was going to play in the League this year and knew he would do terrific," Eichel said. "He's a good friend of mine. Ever since that second year when we were [at the NTDP] that was his coming-out party. He was one of our best players every night. And if you've seen him play, he stands out right away just because of how great a skater he is. He always seems like he's moving. He's like the energizer bunny."
Last season Larkin ranked second at the University of Michigan in goals (15) and points (47), and was tied for first with 32 assists. His 47 points were second among NCAA freshmen behind Hobey Baker Award-winner Eichel at Boston University.
"I don't know how that guy does it but he buzzes around as fast as he can, and as fast as he can is really fast. So he's super-skilled and understands the game," Eichel said. "He has an unbelievable release too. So I'm not surprised at all that he's doing so well."
Larkin has put himself in the Calder Trophy discussion. Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid was among the rookie scoring leaders before he sustained a fractured left clavicle Nov. 3 after crashing into the boards in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers. He was expected to miss fourth months but told reporters Monday that he's recovering ahead of schedule.
McDavid, who had five goals and 12 points in 13 games prior to the injury, has been working out in Toronto. He hasn't started skating but is spending time in the pool and the weight room while he waits for the bone to heal. He said there is no timetable for him to return.
"It's healing well and I feel like it's a little bit ahead of schedule," McDavid told the Oilers website Monday. "It's coming along where it feels good and you want to start doing everything. But at the end of the day you have to let it heal.
"The Oilers medical staff has been great. I've been working with them and we've done a bunch of different stuff. They've done a good job of keeping it moving and making me feel good."
While the hockey world awaits the return of McDavid, other first-year players have earned the spotlight, including Larkin.
St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said what impresses him about Larkin is his ability to see and avoid the rough areas of the ice.
"That's the surprising part for me," Hitchcock said. "He has the ability to sniff out danger when he's going to get rocked. He's able to avoid that type of contact, which to me is a sign of a guy whose game is well beyond his age."
Larkin is very cognizant of where he is in every situation. In a 3-2 win against the Los Angeles Kings on Nov. 20, Larkin transitioned out of his end with Zetterberg on his left and Abdelkader on his right. After stretching his left leg along the blue line to keep the play onside as Zetterberg entered the zone, Larkin went to the front of the net and was in position to bang in the rebound of an Abdelkader shot for the decisive goal 6:08 into the second period.
Larkin isn't only about highlight-reel goals. Such was the case Nov. 27 when he feathered a pass to Niklas Kronwall on a 2-on-1 for an overtime goal in a 4-3 victory against the Oilers. Kronwall's expression after the goal spoke volumes as to how impressed he was with Larkin's patience and craftiness on the play.
Larkin was the best player for the United States at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship, tying for the tournament lead with five goals. He also had one assist in 10 games to help the U.S. win the bronze medal at the 2015 IIHF World Championship; Eichel was a teammate on both teams.
"I don't think he had as many points as he probably wanted [at the World Championship] and he was probably frustrated; I know because I was his roommate at the time," Eichel said. "He had a lot of chances, was always around the net and made a lot of great plays though. He's a terrific skater and it shows."
Eichel, who is tied for second among rookies with eight goals, has two goals in the past three games. He's looking to become the first Sabres rookie to score at least 25 in a season since Thomas Vanek in 2005-06.
He had 26 goals in 40 games at BU last season, but earlier this season Eichel went six games without a goal. He understands he'll need to be patient.
"It's long [season]; quite a schedule," Eichel said. "You're playing a few games a week. You're on the ice every day and it can be tough to manage your body and be up to play every game. But that's part of a being a pro and I'm still adjusting to it. It's something I need to get better at and get more comfortable with."
Eichel continues to put fans on the edge of their seat whenever he has the puck on his stick. In a 4-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Nov. 27, he gave Buffalo a 2-1 lead 12:24 into the second when he picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone, carried it across the blue line and took a wrist shot that beat goaltender Cam Ward over his right shoulder.
"I was trying to make something out of nothing," Eichel said. "I tried to keep it simple, use my speed and get a shot on net. Good things happen when you do that."
"In a one-one contest, Eichel manufactures offense from a broken play in the neutral zone, using his power and speed to get in a situation where he could fire a laser of a wrist shot," Sabres television analyst Brad May told the Sabres website. "It's fun to watch when Jack sees daylight."
In a 3-2 loss against the Nashville Predators on Nov. 25, Eichel took a cross-ice feed from Ryan O'Reilly in the bottom of the left circle and drove a shot past goaltender Carter Hutton inside the left post. That kind of goal scored by Eichel has become a routine occurrence. If opposing goalies give Eichel an opening on the short-side post, there's a good chance he'll find the space to bury it.
"He's going to make [Buffalo] a stronger team if he hasn't already and as he continues to develop and become more of a leader, I think that will become even more evident," Larkin said of Eichel. "I think I was most impressed with [Eichel's] leadership abilities and how he took over a game. If the team wasn't playing well or down and needed a goal, you're looking at Jack and he handled that really well."