Jim Montgomery said he'll never forget the caliber of talent he had skating alongside him as a senior at the University of Maine two decades ago.
It was 1992-93, and the Black Bears had one heck of a freshmen class, with New York natives Chris and Peter Ferraro and 5-foot-11, 180-pound Vancouver native Paul Kariya in the fold.
Jack Eichel, No. 2 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of the top North American players eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft (left), has drawn comparisons to former NHL forward Paul Kariya because of his dominant freshman season at Boston University. (Photo: Getty Images)
"Paul was special because here's a guy coming in who played for Canada at the World Junior Championship the year before on a line with Eric Lindros, so everybody knew of the talent," Montgomery said. "But you don't know how talented a player is until you see him on the ice."
Montgomery, now coach at the University of Denver, didn't need to watch many line rushes during practice to conclude Kariya was pretty unique.
A similar scenario took place at Boston University this season when freshman Jack Eichel walked on campus after representing the United States at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship. Eichel, No. 2 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of the top North American skaters eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft, had a similar presence, demeanor and impact in his first collegiate season.
"I jokingly say he's kind of like the Secretariat of a hockey player," Boston University coach David Quinn said. "If you ever watch Secretariat run, he just looks so different than all the other horses.
"Jack is very much in that mold."
It's hard to argue with Quinn, particularly since Eichel became the second freshman, and first since Kariya, to win the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's best player. Each won Hockey East Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year honors as well.
"I think Eichel is right up there as one of the best players to ever play at BU," said former Terriers coach Jack Parker, who recruited Eichel. "I think he's the best freshman to play in Hockey East since Paul Kariya."
Not since Kariya had 100 points in 39 games in 1992-93 had a college freshman led the NCAA in scoring before Eichel did so last season, when he had 71 points in 40 games. He also had 45 assists, a 1.78 points-per-game average and a plus-51 rating. Eichel scored more goals (26) than Kariya (25) as a freshman.
Montgomery said he feels Eichel has a lot in common with Kariya, who the Anaheim Ducks selected No. 4 at the 1993 NHL Draft. Eichel is expected to be the second pick at the 2015 draft, one spot after center Connor McDavid of the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, No. 1 on Central Scouting's final ranking of the top North American skaters.
"I don't think people understand how remarkable a feat it was for a freshman to put up points that had never been done in college before at a per-game rate," Montgomery said of Kariya's 2.56 points per game. "To do it as a 17-year-old turning 18 is just ridiculous. I was his center and was 23 years old.
"I just remember [Kariya] doing things I had never seen before. 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."
Boston University senior forward Evan Rodrigues had similar praise for Eichel, who had 39 of his 71 points in the third period or overtime of games.
"Jack is such a special player that he could kind of fight through [being shadowed]," Rodrigues said. "It gave us more time and space to use our ability and skill. And if we got open, no matter how many guys Jack had on him ... he seemed to be able to find us. So our job was to be open and to be supporting him. We had full faith he would fight through whatever the opposing team put on him."
Montgomery can recall Kariya literally skating circles around opponents.
"He was doing a spin-o-rama, going as fast as he could skate, and then feeding a saucer pass backdoor to [right wing] Cal Ingraham for an easy tap-in," Montgomery said. "He made all of us better, everyone's creativity higher, and everyone more confident that we could not be beaten."
The Kariya-Montgomery-Ingraham line averaged 1.97 goals per game in 39 games for Maine in 1992-93. The line of Daniel O'Regan, Eichel and Rodrigues averaged 1.86 goals per game in 23 games together.
"He's a freak on the ice with the way he can overpower and skate by people," O'Regan said of Eichel.
Kariya, who was an honors student in business administration, returned to Maine for his sophomore season and was named captain. He played two games before joining Canada at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. He joined the Ducks after the Olympics, foregoing his remaining college hockey eligibility.
Eichel has yet to determine whether he will return to Boston University for his sophomore season, saying he needed to discuss the situation with his advisers and parents after the 2015 draft, which will be held June 26-27 at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla.
"Like Eichel, [Kariya] was very poised and very politically correct [with the media]," Montgomery said. "He always deflected the deserved adulation that he was getting toward the program and his teammates. He was an incredibly selfless teammate and that's the way he handled the press."
Eichel took a similar approach all season, particularly after winning the Hobey Baker Award on April 10.
"So many people have helped me get to this point in my career," he said in his acceptance speech. "Coach Quinn not only made me a better person every day but also a better hockey player, and I couldn't say enough nice things about you."
POINTS PER GAME, DRAFT-ELIGIBLE NCAA FRESHMEN (since 1992-93)
2.56 - Paul Kariya, Maine (1992-93)
1.77 - Jack Eichel, Boston University (2013-14)
1.56 - Zach Parise, North Dakota (2002-03)
1.47 - Dany Heatley, Wisconsin (1999-00)
1.46 - Brian Gionta, Boston College (1997-98)
1.38 - Thomas Vanek, Minnesota (2002-03)
1.30 - Phil Kessel, Minnesota (2005-06)
Source: College Hockey, Inc.
Boston University had a bounce-back season with Eichel in 2014-15, with a 28-8-5 record one season after going 10-21-4; it's the fifth-best turnaround in NCAA Division I history. BU won the Beanpot Tournament and the Hockey East regular-season and postseason championships. Along the way Eichel set a Hockey East tournament record with 11 points.
The Terriers advanced to the NCAA Tournament championship game but lost 4-3 to Providence College. In addition to the Hobey Baker, Eichel was named USA Hockey's College Hockey Player of the Year.
After his college season Eichel joined the United States at the 2015 IIHF World Championship. He had two goals and seven points in 10 games to help the U.S. win the bronze medal. He skated primarily with forwards Trevor Lewis (Los Angeles Kings) and Brock Nelson (New York Islanders).
"When he gets the puck on his stick he becomes an incredibly dangerous player," said Columbus Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards, who coached the U.S. at the World Championship. "It's his speed, his reach, his vision, and he is also very strong on the puck."
Prior to going to college Eichel spent two seasons with the United States National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. There he was coached by Don Granato, who still smiles when the topic shifts to Eichel's incredible skating stride through the neutral zone.
"Do you know how unbelievable that's going to be at the NHL level?" Granato said. "Within two years at the NHL level, he's going to be the most explosive guy in the League. What Jack's got will flourish even more at the next level.
"The team drafting him is going to love having him, period."