George McPhee won't forget the electricity generated by Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby when they entered the NHL as rookies in 2005-06.
McPhee, general manager of the Capitals at the time, had a front-row seat to one of the more memorable races for the Calder Memorial Trophy as NHL rookie of the year. Ovechkin won after he had 52 goals and 106 points in 81 games. Crosby, who had 39 goals and 102 points in 81 games, was second.
Now a special adviser to New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow, McPhee sees similarities between the rookie seasons for Ovechkin and Crosby and the performances this season of Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid and Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel.
"It turns out to be great for the game because the entire League and hockey world is watching, and there's this instant competition between the two guys," McPhee said.
The head-to-head battle may have been a little more personal between Ovechkin and Crosby, since they met more often as players on rival Eastern Conference teams. McDavid and Eichel were linked last season in the build-up to the 2015 NHL Draft and will be compared throughout their NHL careers.
"When the hype started happening with [Ovechkin] and Crosby, I initially thought it might be a little contrived. But when they started playing each other it wasn't," McPhee said. "It's really good for the game and for a couple of franchises [Edmonton and Buffalo] that need a pick-me-up.
"Look what [Ovechkin] did for hockey in Washington for so many years and how Sidney revived the franchise in Pittsburgh; it's been nothing but great for those individuals."
Following a slow start to the season, McDavid has been exceptional. Entering play Monday he led all rookies with 12 points and is tied for the lead with five goals. After being held without a point in his first two NHL games, he has points in eight of 10 games. He had a seven-game point streak end in a loss against the Calgary Flames on Saturday, and on Monday he was named NHL Rookie of the Month for October.
McDavid's assist on a goal by Benoit Pouliot 10:43 into the third period against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 29 was as impressive as any goal he's scored this season. After shielding off Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban in the neutral zone along the right-wing boards, he was able to poke the puck ahead to Pouliot, who was racing down the middle for the scoring chance. McDavid finished with two assists in a 4-3 victory.
In a recent interview on NHL Live, McDavid admitted to one obvious difference between junior hockey and the NHL.
"I think one of the biggest things is that no one really makes mistakes; everyone is always in the right position," McDavid said. "There's never any turnovers to make a quick attack. So I think some of those mistakes you normally would take advantage of in juniors just haven't been there at this level."
Eichel scored two goals in his first three games and is tied for the Sabres lead with four. He leads rookie forwards with 18:51 of ice time per game, and has been gaining more confidence and working hard on perfecting his game without the puck.
His fourth goal of the season, against the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday, was another highlight-reel effort. After taking a pass from Ryan O'Reilly at the Flyers blue line he hit the brakes upon entering the left circle to create space with Flyers defenseman Evgeny Medvedev. As he cut left to right through the high slot, he fired a wrist shot against the grain that beat Flyers goaltender Michal Neuvirth over his right shoulder.
Eichel's goal, with 36 seconds remaining in the first period, sparked a 3-1 victory.
"He dangled me there too. It was a great play," O'Reilly said. "It just opened up. And that's why he's so good. You see the maturity on a young kid like that, and that was a big goal to get us going."
"With the puck on his stick there's a little bit different electricity in the air," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said of Eichel. "Not just in this building. It was almost a crescendo as he made the move to the middle of the ice."
McPhee, who is on the road scouting top prospects between two and three days a week, has enjoyed watching McDavid and Eichel.
"What Larry Bird and Magic Johnson did for basketball, [Ovechkin] and Sid did for hockey at a time when hockey needed something to provide hope and excitement," McPhee said. "McDavid and Eichel are perpetuating that same sort of intrigue into the League again. Not that it wasn't there before, but you can feel it."