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McDavid, Eichel add to reputations at World Juniors

by Mike Morreale / Edmonton Oilers

TORONTO -- The border battle between forwards Connor McDavid of Canada and Jack Eichel of the United States, the projected top two picks in the 2015 NHL Draft, never fully materialized at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship.

Still, each player certainly had his fair share of highlight-reel moments.

In the end, McDavid added a WJC gold medal to his trophy case while Eichel went home empty-handed for a second straight year in what will likely be the final opportunity for each player at the tournament designed for the best junior-aged players in the world.

Each player is expected to be making contributions in the NHL in 2015-16.

Photo by Getty Images.

"I think the team picking first [at the NHL Draft] needs to give equal consideration to each of them," NHL Network analyst Craig Button said. "Neither one of them has given me any reason to change that outlook."

Eichel returns to Boston University and will play Friday against the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis. He'll also be gearing up for his first Beanpot Tournament in February with intentions of helping deny rival Boston College of a sixth straight title. The top-line center for the Terriers leads the nation with a 1.69 points-per game average (eight goals, 19 assists) through 16 games.

McDavid could rejoin the Erie Otters in the Ontario Hockey League as soon as Thursday against the Sarnia Sting. It would be his first OHL game since sustaining a right hand injury on Nov. 11, McDavid, who missed five weeks and was cleared to play right before the WJC began, was the leading scorer in the OHL with 51 points (16 goals, 35 assists) in 18 games. He still ranks among the top 15 in scoring, but will look to make up lost time prior to the start of the OHL playoffs in March.

"It's easy to do everything when you're 100 percent, but show me how you get 100 percent when you're not," Button said. "Connor McDavid showed that to me with his speed on different plays. You could see the strength in his hands and his confidence in handling the puck growing, and his game has become more dangerous. But I liked the way he found ways to use his speed and be a real contributor without having to be that scorer."

There's no denying the fact each player is a generational star in the making. McDavid had a splendid World Junior tournament and would still be considered the No. 1 pick in the eyes of many at the 2015 Draft at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla. Eichel is sure to follow.

Photo by Getty Images.

The host nation came out victorious in the only game between Canada and the United States at the 2015 tournament during the preliminary round at Bell Centre in Montreal. It was the fourth head-to-head meeting between the two blue-chip prospects on an international stage; McDavid now holds a 3-1 lead in the all-time series.

The next matchup might very well be as members of NHL franchises.

Statistically, it's hard to argue McDavid had the better showing at the WJC. The 17-year-old finished with three goals, 11 points and a plus-8 rating in seven games. He also finished seventh in the tournament with a 61-percent efficiency on faceoffs (37 of 60).

He gained more traction and confidence with each game, showing a bit more flair and finesse, particularly in the medal round when he had two goals and seven points in three games. McDavid, who served as alternate captain, played a second-line role on a team that averaged 19 years, three months in age.

"He found a way to continually use his speed in an effective manner, whether it be defensively or offensively," Button said of McDavid. "He pushed the attack in different ways."

The transition was good for McDavid, who needed to be eased into game action after sustaining the hand injury in a fight while playing for the Otters two months ago. He started off slow but began turning on the jets as the games began to take on new meaning.

"When you're having fun it's easy to work hard at something, so that's the main thing," McDavid said.

He made no-look passes while on his belly and weaved through defenders for goals.

McDavid and Eichel have made it a point to simply concentrate on their games and their seasons. Questions about the draft or the race for No. 1 normally elicit high-road responses. But every so often there are a few words that prove the character and sincerity of the player.

Photo by Getty Images

"He's a great player," McDavid said of Eichel. "He has a lot of size, a lot of speed, a lot of skill. He did a lot of good stuff out there."

Eichel, who served as captain of the United States, finished with one goal, four points, a minus-3 rating, 21 shots on goal and a 45-percent faceoff efficiency in five games on a team that averaged 18 years, 10 months. He was the country's top-line center and it was evident from the start that he would be the one fueling the American engine.

"Jack is the best player in college hockey," Button said. "I think he has the personality that says, 'Hey, I'm a front-of-the-line guy, not a back-of-the-line guy,' and I love that about him."

When Eichel struggled to get untracked when closely guarded in losses against Canada in the preliminary round and Russia in the quarterfinal round, the United States lacked the swagger and confidence it so desperately needed.

"Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid are like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson; neither one was more important to the team than the other guy and neither one was a lesser player," Button said. "They had different styles and approaches to the game and [are] in different markets. But to me they were both equally valuable and important to their teams and that's how I see them."

Eichel tried his best, but sometimes even your best isn't good enough in the ultimate team game.

"I don't think I did enough or we did enough as a team," Eichel said after the loss to Russia in the playoff round. "You're never satisfied with yourself, especially when you lose in the quarterfinal. I could have buried some more chances, been a little better in my own zone."

Each player has certainly earned the respect of his teammates and opponents.

"There is so much pressure on [McDavid], you see what he is going through, himself and Eichel and it's a big year for them," Canada captain Curtis Lazar said. "My draft year was nothing compared to what they are going through, but just enjoy it. It only comes around once in a lifetime."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL

Author: Mike G. Morreale | Staff Writer

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