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Rookie phenoms McDavid, Eichel together in spotlight

by Arpon Basu

If the 2015-16 NHL season could be summed up in one word, it might be McEichel.

It's not actually a word, but the combination of the last names of Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid and Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel became a buzzword surrounding the 2015 NHL Draft when everyone knew the two potentially franchise-altering players would be the top two picks.

In a sense, that made-up name actually says a lot about the relationship between McDavid and Eichel, one that doesn't really exist on any kind of personal level but will follow each of them throughout their respective NHL careers.

McEichel shows to what extent McDavid and Eichel are joined at the hip. They were compared and contrasted for two years leading up to the 2015 draft, and that comparison will intensify now that they are ready to embark on their NHL careers.

"I think it naturally happens in sports. People are linked together all the time," McDavid said last week during the NHL Players' Association Rookie Showcase. "Obviously he [Eichel] is a very good player and there are certainly worse people I could be linked to. It's a good thing."

Any 18-year-old attempting to make his mark in the NHL already bears a heavy burden, but doing so amid this backdrop of constantly being compared to another equally gifted 18-year-old could add another layer for McDavid and Eichel that few rookies are subjected to. It's only natural they are going to do their best to avoid it this season.

"I try not to put any thought into comparisons between me and Connor," Eichel said during the NHLPA Rookie Showcase. "It's going to be there; it's always going to be there. But the fact is now that the draft's over and all that's done with, I wish him the best in Edmonton and I'm just going to try and focus on myself and do what I can to help the Buffalo Sabres."

Even if that's the case, Eichel said he knows the comparisons will not stop, and that it doesn't really bother him either.

"It's a competitive relationship," he said.

For now there is no guarantee McDavid and Eichel will play in the NHL this season, although it is all but a formality they will be in the opening-night lineups for the Oilers and Sabres. The first step for each of them begins later this week, with Oilers rookies participating in the Young Stars Classic Tournament in Penticton, British Columbia, starting Friday, and the Sabres hosting their own Prospects Challenge tournament starting Saturday.

They likely will be two of the most watched and analyzed prospect tournaments we have seen. And they also will mark the moment McDavid and Eichel have waited for, when they can express themselves on the ice more than through the media.

"I'm a hockey player and that's what I love to do," McDavid said. "That is what I am here for. Everything else is just a side note. My job is to play hockey and not to talk to the media all the time. I'm looking forward to getting on the ice."

The timing of the arrival of McDavid and Eichel in the NHL could not be much better, coming a decade after the NHL's last hotly anticipated duo of rookies took the ice at the same time. In 2005, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals were ready to take the NHL by storm. It was a little bit different in that Ovechkin and Crosby were the first picks of the 2004 and 2005 drafts, respectively, but Sid and Ovi became a very big thing starting with the 2005-06 season, just as McEichel is now.

Crosby has grown into the face of the NHL and is regarded as the best player in the world, with Ovechkin not far behind. They each have lived up to the massive expectations heaped on them as rookies, but also have needed to manage adversity and criticism along the way.

It is easy for Crosby to relate, and even though McDavid and Eichel would prefer to try and leave the comparison behind them, Crosby admits it was difficult for him to ignore it.

"There was definitely some healthy competition there with Washington to being a big rival with Pittsburgh; that probably added to it," Crosby said Tuesday during the NHL Player Media Tour. "They [McDavid and Eichel] won't see as much of each other being in different conferences, but that being said there is always healthy competition. That goes for a lot of guys besides guys who were [drafted] one and two, it goes for guys who grew up playing against each other and have gone through things along the way."

McDavid and Eichel were each 8 years old when the 2005-06 season began, and the rise of Crosby and Ovechkin had an impact on both of them.

McDavid said he was a bigger Crosby fan, which hardly is surprising. The two followed very similar paths to the NHL, growing up in Canada under the glaring spotlight of being labeled a hockey prodigy at a very young age.

"I was a huge fan of his," McDavid said. "Not to say I wasn't an Ovechkin fan, too, because I was as well. They are a couple of players that you almost have to like. They are the face of the NHL and have been for the past 10 years. They are a couple of guys to look up to, for sure."

Eichel couldn't choose between the two, saying he alternated back and forth between Crosby and Ovechkin being his favorite.

"First of all, they're so exciting to watch; you want to watch them every time they have the puck," he said. "It's pretty special; you never know what they're going to do. Obviously they had a lot of success in terms of putting points on the board and winning when they were young. They came into two struggling franchises and turned them around pretty quickly."

The burden of doing the same for the Oilers and Sabres now falls to McDavid and Eichel 10 years later, with everyone keeping tabs on who does it better and quicker. It might not be fair, but it's the reality of the situation.

McEichel likely will live on in the minds of fans and observers, but it would be in the best interests of McDavid and Eichel to focus on themselves and their own situations, according to someone who knows a thing or two about the comparison game.

"I think the situation we were coming into was similar, but the way we've played and continued to play is different," Crosby said. "It probably makes it easier to try to want to make those comparisons and go back and forth, but I just tried to be my best. That was my mindset coming in as an NHL rookie. Even though there is a lot of talk and a lot of comparisons made, that's one thing that I understood pretty quickly, that I just have to be my best here.

"I don't know what that's going to look like as an 18-year-old in the NHL, but I want to make sure I do everything I can to prepare and enjoy myself in my first year, and wherever that leaves me it leaves me."

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