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Top-rated players in draft have been teammates, rivals

by Joe Yerdon

BUFFALO -- The top-four North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting's final rankings didn't need to come to the Draft Combine this week to get acquainted. If anything, some of them know each other all too well.

Forwards Connor McDavid, expected to be the first player taken, and Dylan Strome were teammates with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League. Boston University forward Jack Eichel, likely to be the second player taken, played against defenseman Noah Hanifin at archrival Boston College.

Those four players headline what's believed to be one of the most talented draft classes in years, though McDavid and Eichel are getting the majority of the attention.

"I'm not that quite comfortable with the term 'generational' myself, but it's a fine line and I think if you try to project 10 years down the road it's still going to be a fine line," NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr said Friday. "[McDavid and Eichel] both bring something a little different to the table, but they're both going to be big contributors in the National Hockey League. They're going to make a difference for their team. They're going to impact; they're going to put up numbers and they're going to be special players."

McDavid was ranked No. 1 by Central Scouting after putting up 120 points in 47 games with the Otters despite missing time with a broken wrist and a two-week break during which he played for Canada at the World Junior Championship.

His junior teammate had an idea how to defend him.

"Good luck, I guess," Strome said. "I had to play against him in the 2015 Top Prospects Game [on Jan. 22] and I got caught out there for about a minute-and-a-half shift and he was on the ice and I did whatever possible to not let him score on me. I think he passed one through my legs when I was in the slot and I'm looking at him in the corner. He has ability to do that to teams and to people.

"I definitely take it for granted, and people in Erie take it for granted, how we get to see him every day at practice and games. Some of the stuff he does is pretty ridiculous. He's going to be on SportsCenter a lot in the coming years."

Though the attention paid to McDavid is well-earned, it was Strome who led the OHL in scoring with 129 points in 68 games.

"He's unbelievable. His hockey IQ is off the charts," McDavid said of his Erie teammate. "What he's able to do in terms of finding people with the puck and making great passes, it's so fun to watch. I oftentimes find myself just kind of watching him when I'm on the bench. A guy like that you can always learn some stuff off of."

The feeling is mutual.

"It's pretty amazing to see. All the people he talks to and the way he handles himself with the media and stuff," Strome said. "Obviously [McDavid] had a pretty crazy year with the whole injury thing and he had to answer questions about that and the show that he was doing was following him when that happened. It was just a crazy event, but you could see how much of a professional he already is with dealing with it. You just learn things from listening to him in interviews. … He really handled himself like a pro."

Eichel has the same kind of highlight-making ability. In his first season at Boston University, he won the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA's top player with 70 points in 41 games. He was the highest-scoring freshman since Paul Kariya had 100 points in 39 games for Maine during the 1992-93 season.

It was Hanifin's job to try to slow him down when the two Boston rivals played.

"You probably want to limit his time and space. Keep him to the outside," Hanifin said. "With guys that skilled there's not much you can do besides keep them to the outside and don't let him get inside on you."

Hanifin's performance at Boston College, where he began the season as a 17-year-old, made Eichel take notice.

"I think Noah brings out the best in me," Eichel said. "He's a good friend of mine and it's great competition playing against him."

Eichel and Hanifin have played with and against each other since they were 10 years old.

"Noah's a really good player," Eichel said. "He's a great skater which makes it tough for all forwards to play against him. He's really smart. I think just taking his time and space away, he's a great puck mover and great in transition."

In addition to trying to shut down Eichel during the college season, Hanifin also got to play against McDavid at the World Juniors. He said the differences in the styles of play between the two were apparent.

"I'm a lot more familiar with Jack. I played against him and I played with him growing up," Hanifin said. "Obviously both of them are very dangerous when they have the puck, but I'd say Connor is a little crafty in the corners. He's very good on his edges and spinning in the corner, whereas Jack is very powerful; a north-south guy. He'll beat you with his speed if he needs to. Connor can too, but they're different, just different types of skaters."

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