BUFFALO, N.Y. — Impressed yet not surprised, Oilers coach Todd McLellan couldn’t help but acknowledge the larger than usual gathering of reporters on hand for what was essentially a meaningless game in Buffalo on Tuesday.
Bad as the Oilers and Sabres have been this season, McLellan credited Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Buffalo’s Jack Eichel for showing how capable the rookie centers are in drawing a crowd.
”We’re very lucky to have them in our league. And the fans are very lucky to watch them play on a nightly basis because they’re gifted, they’re skilled, they’re the future of our game,” McLellan said. ”So that’s why we have playoff-type coverage for two teams that are probably not going to make it.”
The Oilers are 29th, and sit last in the Pacific Division. The Sabres are hardly better, sitting 26th overall entering Tuesday.
The matchup created a buzz because it was the first NHL meeting between two players touted as having ”once-in-a-generation” talent when McDavid was selected first overall and Eichel second in the draft last year.
McDavid did not disappoint by scoring both goals, including one at 3:48 of overtime, in the Oilers’ 2-1 victory.
The game was also held a day before the Canadian-born McDavid and American-born Eichel are expected to be named among the first 16 players selected to the Team North America’s World Cup of Hockey roster. The squad will consist of players 23 years and younger and coached by McLellan.
”Those two stand a good chance of being on that roster,” McLellan said. ”I think the special thing is that these two are going to play a lot of hockey against each other. But they’re also going to play some hockey together.”
The only ones who spent much of the day attempting to deflect the attention were the two players themselves.
”You guys probably want to do it that way,” Eichel said, when asked about facing McDavid. ”It’s a team game. There’s five guys on the ice and a goalie. It’s a lot more than two people playing against each other.”
Added McDavid: ”It’s just Buffalo versus Edmonton.”
Outside of hockey, the two have very little in common.
McDavid is from suburban Toronto and played in the Ontario Hockey League for the Pennsylvania-based Erie Otters.
Eichel was born in North Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and played one year at Boston University, where he became the second freshman to win college hockey’s Hobey Baker Award last year.
Edmonton’s (from left) Andrej Sekera, Connor McDavid and Brandon Davidson celebrate after McDavid scored in overtime against the Sabres on Tuesday in Buffalo, N.Y. Edmonton won 2-1.
The two have been linked since September 2014, when NHL scouts projected them to be the top two draft prospects.
In Buffalo, fans were so excited over the chance of the Sabres drafting one or the other that they created the nickname, ”McEichel,” combining both players’ last names.
The Sabres finished last in the league last season, but were relegated to picking second after the Oilers won the draft lottery.
McDavid is a smooth-skating, playmaking center, who was chosen first because he was regarded as having more potential with his effortless stride and vision.
McDavid’s season was derailed in November, when he was forced to miss 37 games with a broken collarbone. Despite the time missed, he entered the game ranking 14th among rookies with 29 points (10 goals, 19 assists) in 27 games. He was the NHL’s rookie of the month after scoring five goals and 12 assists in 14 games in February.
Eichel is a strong, elusive skater, with a hard shot and provides a more physical presence with his 6-foot-2, 201-pound frame. He ranks third among rookies with 41 points (17 goals, 24 assists) in 63 games.
They represent key pieces to their respective team’s rebuilding process, which are still far from finished. The Oilers haven’t made the playoffs in nine straight seasons. The Sabres are coming off consecutive last-place finishes and have not made the postseason since 2011.
McLellan believes Eichel might have an edge in his NHL development because of the time McDavid missed due to injury.
”The good thing for Jack is he’s kind of gone through it already and figured out some of his opponents,” McLellan said. ”Connor’s still going through that because he hasn’t played half a season yet.”
The game in Buffalo is a bit of a homecoming for McDavid. While playing in Erie, he would occasionally make the 90-minute drive to watch Sabres games.
McDavid and the Otters also played a regular-season game in Buffalo in October 2014.
”It feels like it was forever ago, really,” McDavid said, breaking into a smile. ”Definitely a lot of stuff has happened since then, but it’s been a fun ride.”