BROSSARD, Que. – It will be hard to overlook the head-to-head battle between the likely top two picks in the NHL draft when Canada faces the United States at the world junior championship.
Debate has raged for at least two years on whether Canada’s Connor McDavid or American Jack Eichel will go first at the 2015 draft in June.
But before that is settled, the gifted teenagers will face each other in a showdown for first place in their preliminary round group at the Bell Centre on Wednesday.
While both insist the game is about the teams and not themselves, many fans in the seats and viewers on television will be comparing the play of two of the best junior prospects to emerge in recent years.
“It’s there a little bit,” McDavid said Tuesday of the Connor versus Jack sideshow. “It’s been something that’s been there for a long time now, but at the end of the day, it’s the U.S. against Canada. It’s not me against anybody else.”
“It’s not all about me versus Connor, it’s a huge matchup for the top seed in our bracket,” he said.
Eichel, who turned 18 on Oct. 28, was named captain of the American squad despite his youth, while Canada made McDavid, who turns 18 on Jan. 13, an alternate to captain Curtis Lazar.
It is rare for a so-called “underage” player at the mostly 19-year-old tournament to wear any letter at all, but these two are special talents.
Both are great skaters. Both have sublime hands and playmaking ability. Both pile up points, although neither has had a breakout game at the world juniors yet.
After three games each, McDavid has a goal and two assists, all collected during a 4-0 win over Germany. Eichel has a goal and a helper.
In the Ontario Hockey League, the six-foot-one 187-pound McDavid has 16 goals and 51 points in only 18 games for the Erie Otters. Before the world juniors, he hadn’t played since Nov. 11 after breaking his right hand in a fight.
The six-foot-two 193-pound Eichel has eight goals and 27 points in 16 games for Boston University playing against slightly older competition in the NCAA.
Now they are set to play against each other with a host of NHL scouts and a national TV audience watching every move.
“You always want to be a difference maker, whatever game it is,” said McDavid. “Obviously it’s a bigger stage, but that doesn’t make a difference.”
Both coaches, Benoit Groulx for Canada and Mark Osiecki for the U.S., praised their young phenoms for not getting too caught up in the hype about themselves and for putting their team’s performance first.
Although McDavid and Eichel have never really met off the ice, they’ve faced each other before at under-17 and under-18 events. They also both played at last year’s world junior championship in Malmo, Sweden, although neither was in a leading role at that point in their development.
“It’s exciting, but it’s more exciting just to be at this tournament in general,” said Eichel. “It’s been a lot of fun so far and I’m sure it’ll be a blast.”
Canada and the U.S. have built a rivalry in recent years that will add intensity to the matchup. And regardless of who wins, they could end up meeting again in the knockout stage.
“For us, it’s Canada versus the U.S., not Connor versus Eichel,” said Groulx. “Those are two guys among 44 players who will play against each other.
“I can’t answer for him, but I think a lot of media have been talking about Eichel and McDavid, so I think they’re used to it. But Connor is a team player and he thinks more about us winning than him versus Eichel.”
Canada (3-0-0 for nine points) has outscored its opponents 16-1 so far, while the U.S. (2-0-1 for eight points) has an 11-1 edge. The Americans lost a point by going to overtime and a shootout in its tournament opening 2-1 win over Finland.
Where Canada has an edge is on the power play, which has scored on five of 10 chances. The Americans have one goal in 13 opportunities. Neither team has conceded a power-play goal.
Groulx made a surprise move in announcing that Eric Comrie will get the start in goal. Zach Fucale, a Montreal native, started the first and third games, allowing one goal, while Comrie had a 4-0 shutout against Germany.
While the choice suggests to some a lack of faith in Fucale, Groulx said he considers them equal and said it has not yet been decided which of them is the number one netminder.
He also said that Vancouver Canucks prospect Jake Virtanen will stick with McDavid’s line with Curtis Lazar after playing there in the third period of a 4-1 win over Finland on Monday night. That bumps big Nick Ritchie of the Peterborough Petes to the fourth unit.
“He’s the same type of player as Rich,” McDavid said of Virtanen. “He’s a big body. He flies out there. He’s a real presence and he has a lot of skills.”
The game also features two more players slated as top-10 draft picks: fourth-line forward Lawson Crouse for Canada and defenceman Noah Hanifin of the U.S., who many have ranked just behind McDavid and Eichel.