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McDavid-Eichel matchup could be top moment of WJC

by Mike G. Morreale

There will come a time in the late afternoon on New Year's Eve when the roar of the crowd at Bell Centre in Montreal will equal the decibel meter in Times Square in New York City just as the clock strikes midnight to usher in the new year.

It will happen when 17-year-old Connor McDavid of Canada and 18-year-old American Jack Eichel, the projected top two picks in the 2015 NHL Draft, go head-to-head chasing a puck into a corner during preliminary-round action in the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship.

DeAngelo has seen McDavid, Eichel's best

United States defenseman Anthony DeAngelo has one advantage that few players have received this season when it comes to debating whether Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel might be the better prospect for the 2015 NHL Draft.

The offensive-minded right-shot defender, a first-round pick (No. 19) of the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2014 NHL Draft, has played with or against both players.

Now in his fourth season with the Sarnia Sting in the Ontario Hockey League, DeAngelo has been matched against McDavid on more than a few occasions during the regular season when his team battled McDavid's Erie Otters. He also played with and against Eichel during practice sessions with the United States National Junior Team in preparation for the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship.

Going against either player isn't easy.

"I think it's tough to compare them," DeAngelo said. "They are both dynamic offensive guys with different skill sets. They are both so good. Jack is more of a bigger body, power forward-type skater. Connor is more that skilled, quick center who flies. But Jack is fast too.

"Connor is tough 1-on-1. I remember having to race him for the puck in our corner and he was cruising. I was at my blue line and he was a couple steps ahead. I'm usually quick enough to catch the guy right away but I had to go 120 percent to get there and then a real battle took place in the corner."

-- Mike G. Morreale

The faster 6-foot-1, 195-pound McDavid might get to the puck first, but will he be able to outmuscle the stronger 6-2, 196-pound Eichel for control?

Each player will claim it's no big deal in the grand scheme of things for their respective teams, but when these two generational behemoths collide, you can bet hockey fans will be tuned in worldwide.

"Every year the ranking order for the NHL draft has the favored candidates and often there are two, three or four names in the mix for consideration to go first overall," NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr said. "But for 2015 it is far more exciting when looking at the two frontrunners because both Eichel and McDavid are remarkable young hockey players. A big part of what makes them remarkable is the consistency and results in their level of play.

"Both continually raise the bar on themselves and have met and often exceeded expectations. And for NHL scouts it is a treat to watch these two in action."

They last played against each other at the 2014 WJC in Sweden at a time when they were coming into their own in a tournament traditionally dominated by 19-year-old players, many of which already have been drafted by NHL teams. McDavid saw limited action in a bottom-six role on most occasions and had one goal, four points and 10 shots on goal. Eichel was given a more prominent spot in the lineup and finished with one goal, five points and 15 shots.

In their only head-to-head matchup, Dec. 31, 2014 at Malmo Isstadion in the preliminary round, Eichel had no points, five shots on goal and won seven of 10 faceoffs. McDavid scored a third-period goal, had two shots on goal and didn't take a faceoff in a 3-2 Canada win.

It'll be different this year since they are older, wiser and so much better. They are expected to serve as the top-line center for their respective team.

Both have played like superstars heading into the tournament.

Eichel, a freshman at Boston University in Hockey East, leads the NCAA with 27 points in 16 games.

"He is proving to be such an amazing game-breaker; he's relentless and driven on the play and has the smarts, speed and skills to deliver a needed scoring drive to tie up or win a game," Marr said of Eichel. "He has many Jonathan Toews-type traits in his game."

McDavid, despite being out since Nov. 11 with a broken right pinky finger, is still among the top 10 in scoring in the Ontario Hockey League with 51 points in 18 games for the Erie Otters.

He returned from injury Sunday with an assist in a 5-2 win against Sweden in a pre-tournament game in Ottawa. He didn't look too much like a player who hasn't played a game in nearly six weeks.

"With McDavid, everything about his game revolves around speed and quickness," Marr said. "Not only he is an outstanding skater, he processes the game and reacts so quickly on the ice that he often is making a difference on every shift he plays. When scouts go to watch McDavid they are continually amazed at how he's able to show something new practically every time you see him play.

How the No. 1 NHL Draft pick fared at the WJC the past 10 years

2014: Aaron Ekblad (Florida), Canada, 1-1-2, 8 shots
2013: Nathan MacKinnon (Avalanche), Canada, 0-1-1, 7 shots
2012: Nail Yakupov (Oilers), Russia, 0-9-9, 21 shots
2011: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Oilers), Canada, Did not play
2010: Taylor Hall (Oilers), Canada, 6-6-12, 21 shots
2009: John Tavares (Islanders), Canada, 8-7-15, 31 shots
2008: Steven Stamkos (Lightning), Canada, 1-5-6, 13 shots
2007: Patrick Kane (Blackhawks), USA, 5-4-9, 23 shots
2006: Erik Johnson (Blues), USA, 1-3-4, 18 shots
2005: Sidney Crosby (Penguins), Canada, 6-3-9, 27 shots

"The NHL speed, hockey sense and skill set he possesses are a strong blend of Joe Sakic and Sidney Crosby."

Canada fans and most hockey scribes will say McDavid is a lock as the No. 1 choice in the 2015 draft. Americans might give Eichel more of a chance to be the first player picked. What we do know is that there should be many happy returns for the team that selects either of them June 26 at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla.

"What should really make this exciting for NHL fans is that the best is yet to come for both these talented young players," Marr said.

They already had a chance to skate on NHL ice earlier this season, at First Niagara Center in Buffalo. At the USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game on Sept. 25, Eichel was named the most valuable player after he had one goal and two points in an 8-4 victory for Team Mike Grier against Team Ed Olczyk.

One month later, McDavid was named first star of the game after he had one goal and two assists in an 8-4 Erie win against the Niagara IceDogs on Oct. 22.

"I've been going to the National Team Development Program tryouts for the past 10 years and Eichel was the best forward I had ever seen," University of Denver coach Jim Montgomery said. Eichel spent two seasons with the USNTDP prior to joining the Terriers this season.

Montgomery knows a little something about high-end draft picks. As a senior at the University of Maine in 1992-93, he skated with NHL star Paul Kariya.

"I just remember him [Kariya] doing things I had never seen before," Montgomery said. "He was making plays before anyone else expected the play. No one in the stands or on the ice knew that the passing lane was open except for him."

Kariya was the last college freshman to lead the NCAA in scoring, with 100 points in 39 games in 1992-93. Eichel probably won't duplicate that feat, but he's certainly giving it his best shot.

"Eichel is outstanding," Boston College coach Jerry York said. "The closest comparison is Mike Modano at a similar age; he's that type of player."

Modano finished his NHL career as the leader in goals (561) and points (1,374) among American-born players, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November.

Since opening the season with a 10-game point streak (seven goals, 19 points), opposing teams have made a concerted effort to limit Eichel's chances, but he's adapted well. In his final three games before leaving for USA Hockey training camp, Eichel had one shot in each game but had six assists and leads the NCAA with an average of 1.69 points per game. Not since Kariya, who averaged 2.56 points per game in his record-breaking season with the Black Bears in 1992-93, has a draft-eligible freshman produced a higher average.

McDavid opened the season with a 14-game point streak (14 goals, 42 points) before he was held off the score sheet Nov. 6 against the IceDogs. He sustained his hand injury three games later.

Now in his third OHL season, McDavid has 69 goals and 216 points in 137 games. As a comparison, Crosby had 120 goals and 303 points in 121 in two seasons with Rimouski in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Like New York Islanders captain John Tavares in 2005, McDavid was granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada for 2012-13, making him eligible for the Ontario Hockey League draft as a 15-year-old. Erie made him the first pick of the 2012 draft.

Tavares went on to be the first pick of the 2009 NHL Draft.

"You can tell why he's a special hockey player even before he steps on the ice," Tavares said of McDavid. "You see his passion and drive to be the best. And I know at times the attention can be a lot, especially at a young age because people obviously believe you can do some great things and you have the potential to be a great hockey player."

Before McDavid and Eichel become great NHL players, however, fans will have an opportunity to sit back and enjoy the battle for bragging right at this year's WJC.


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