Jack Eichel is early. The often large spotlight cast on the NHL Draft this time of year seems a bit dim, as if conserving energy for what’s to come. Even two months away from the day every prospect dreams about, the two players NHL GMs are dreaming about won’t be in Philadelphia come June.
Eichel, along with Connor McDavid, the player he will likely be pitted against for the remainder of his not-yet-realized career, continue to steal headlines that should probably have been reserved for Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett and Aaron Ekblad. Heck, there’s actually legitimate debate being had about the Islanders keeping a guaranteed No. 5 pick in this year’s draft or let it slide to Buffalo (to complete a trade) in the off chance they have a shot at Eichel or McDavid. And the crazy part about the debate is that it isn’t crazy in the least.
The Jack vs. Connor debate is going to rage on from now until probably forever, but for now, the banner at the top of this page suggests we should be talking about the next big thing in American hockey.
There are always “Next Ones” in sports. These are the prospects that aren’t just going to be can’t miss. They’re supposed to be among the generational talents, the top of the top, the one percent of one percent. Perhaps the phrase gets tossed around too much, dwindling its value and giving skeptics and even optimistic people rightful pause.
I don’t know if Jack Eichel is a “Next One” or if he is the best American prospect since Mike Modano as USA Today’s Kevin Allen, one of the most respected voices on U.S. hockey, wrote just a few short weeks ago.
What I do know is that he is a rare talent with the numbers to back it up and a trail of scouts that will tell you without taking a breath about his NHL potential.
Eichel is coming off a rather incredible season. Having spent this year with the U.S. National Under-18 Team at USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, Eichel was following in the footsteps of the most recent Americans to go No. 1 overall, Rick DiPietro (2000), Erik Johnson (2006) and Patrick Kane (2007), who all spent time in Ann Arbor. Like Kane, he is a late birthdate, meaning most of his peers will be drafted this year, while Eichel has to wait until 2015.
While in Ann Arbor, Eichel had the fourth most productive season in the history of the NTDP. Only Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel and Andy Hilbert had better seasons than the 87 points Eichel put up for the U18s. All made it to the NHL, two of them are among the elite offensive players in the game today. The youngster also did this while missing eight games.
The biggest difference between Eichel and the other three is that the NTDP is now in the USHL, playing better junior competition than the NAHL teams Kane and Kessel were torching back then. Eichel laid waste to the USHL, unquestionably a high-end junior hockey outlet, with 45 points in just 24 games. The rest of his production came against NCAA and international opponents including 10 points a the recent World Under-18 Championship.
Eichel tied with teammate Sonny Milano (who also had a season for the ages with 86 points and a sure ticket for the high first round of this year’s draft) with 10 points at the World U18s. The team claimed its eighth gold medal at the event and fifth in six years. (Side note: Also on the team was 16-year-old defenseman Noah Hanifin, who is in Eichel’s shadow but very well could be a top-five pick in 2015. At this stage of his development, Hanifin might be ahead of where Jacob Trouba and Seth Jones were at the same age, which is pretty scary to think about. We’ll probably spend more time on Hanifin on this here website very soon)
If you throw in Eichel’s performance at the World Junior Championship, where Eichel was consistently Team USA’s most dangerous forward despite being the team’s youngest player, his season only becomes more remarkable. He had five points in five games and assuming he’s healthy for the next WJC will be Team USA’s No. 1 center with a bullet. He also got the better of McDavid in the tournament, which went a long way to revving up the Eichel Hype Machine.
Here’s a compilation of highlights from the tournament:
So what makes him so special? There’s a lot of different opinions on him, but from what you read or what I’ve heard from scouts at various levels of hockey, everyone sees a future star in the game.
Eichel has all of the physical tools. At 6-1, 191 (perhaps even closer to 200 now), he uses his frame extremely well. He’s not always at top speed, but there’s an explosiveness to his skating. When he sees a hole, it’s about two steps and see ya later. He has an elite-level release on his shot, which he used to score 39 goals this season. Eichel has excellent vision and offensive instincts, which helped him put up 49 assists, fifth most in NTDP history for a single season.
The thing that always impresses me about Eichel is that the game seems incredibly slow to him. He is never in a rush because he’s probably seen three potential outcomes before the puck is even on his stick. He buys time with his smarts, his size, his skills or his skating. Not every player can do that. Actually, most can’t do them all equally well like Eichel does. There is absolutely no panic in his game. The play is never dead when he has the puck it seems.
Eichel is not a perfect prospect. No one is. There are areas of his game that will need cleaned up as I think I’ve seen a few games where he just looked disinterested and was a non factor. However, the number of games where he is always on or around the puck and is making so much happen far outweighs the nights he’s not his best.
His teams are never out of a game as long as they have him going, which is why there is going to be an honest debate in draft rooms about whether or not Eichel should be ahead of McDavid on their draft boards. He probably will be on a few.
Tuesday night, Eichel announced on Instagram with photographic evidence that he officially signed his National Letter of Intent to play at Boston University next fall. Once again, Eichel will be early. He accelerated a year in high school as his birthday, Oct. 26, 1996, would have made him a junior this year.
Accelerating is no joke, with a heavy workload on top of hockey and school work over the summer to complete. At age 17, with a bright NHL future ahead, how many kids want to do extra school work? You also have to be pretty bright to take something on like that, which by all accounts Eichel is.
Though the ink is still drying on his NLI, Eichel will be heavily pursued by the QMJHL no matter what. His rights are held by the Saint John Sea Dogs, a team that has a snowball’s chance in hell of signing the North Chelmsford, Mass., product. They could trade his rights to another team, like say the Quebec Remparts, a team that has had great success luring non-Canadian talent to Quebec City. Even so, based on all reports from those around Eichel and his rather public display of commitment in announcing his signing with BU, I’d say with confidence at about 98 percent, he’ll be playing college hockey come fall. Never say never, but it’s close.
That is going to make Eichel another rarity. Not since the season leading up to the 2006 NHL Entry Draft has college hockey had a talent as highly regarded as Eichel active in his draft year. That year, a young kid named Jonathan Toews was making waves at the University of North Dakota and Phil Kessel was being lauded as Sidney Crosby’s equal by tearing apart the country at the University of Minnesota. Toews went No. 3 to the Blackhawks and Kessel went fifth to the Boston Bruins. Now they’re both kind of big deals.
Highly drafted prospects have made it to college campuses, like that No. 1 pick in 2006 Erik Johnson, but that was after their draft season.
What makes this more intriguing is Eichel is stepping into a new hockey landscape compared to the one Kessel and Toews waded into during their draft campaigns. The battle between the CHL and college hockey has a lot more heat and the frequency of top Americans going North is far greater than then with a trail of broken commitments along the way.
Having a player like Eichel commit to play college, stick to it and succeed would be a new wrinkle in the battle. Proving an elite player can go to a college program, earn a high draft pick and step into the NHL after a year hasn’t happened since Kessel. That’s a distant memory. In today’s climate, Eichel very well could be a game-changer.
Should Eichel perform to a high degree at BU and push Connor McDavid for top billing in the 2015 draft, even if he goes No. 2 or No. 3 overall, Eichel will be lauded as college hockey’s white knight. He is not going to have near the numbers McDavid will playing in his third year of junior hockey and may not even get the same exposure. It will be an interesting referendum on the differences between the two paths and how they are covered and scouted.
The interesting angle in all of this, if Eichel does indeed make it to BU as everyone expects him to at this point, is that it in all honesty is probably the best move for his development. Eichel would probably put up otherworldly numbers in the QMJHL, thus bolstering his draft stock and probably making it easier for him to compete for the No. 1 spot with McDavid. Would he get pushed enough to improve on already high-end talent? Going that route works for a lot of players as a means to an end, but for Eichel it would like be only a short-term gain.
He’s outgrown junior hockey and proved that with some of his stellar performances against NCAA D1 opponents this season, particularly his three-point night against Michigan State (which was one of his best performances to date). Not only that, but by going to BU, he’ll play under David Quinn, a coach as respected as any for his ability to develop talent. He was a head coach at the NTDP and in the AHL (he helped several of the players on the Colorado Avalanche roster right now while with the Lake Erie Monsters).
Eichel’s hockey skills are all in order, but with the ability to train and build strength at BU, a program that has been renowned for strength and conditioning (even now in the absence of legendary strength coach Mike Boyle), Eichel is putting actual building blocks in place for his career.
By all accounts from scouts, he’s NHL ready and will likely only be in school one year. Having another season of adding strength to help make him even harder on the puck while playing against the bigger, stronger college players is going to push him pretty well.
Really, all Eichel has to do over the next year is continue to improve while getting challenged by older players in a short schedule, while building strength and ensuring his body is ready for the rigors of the NHL. The talent is there.
The hype machine is going to be in full force. The media (including me, I’m sure) will be playing up the Eichel vs. McDavid storyline and already have recently. Just wait until next season starts. If you thought Taylor Hall vs. Tyler Seguin or Seth Jones vs. Nathan MacKinnon was juicy, your head is going to explode next season.
The two players are worth this kind of debate and are worth all of the coverage they will get.
For those of us on this side of the border, there aren’t many “Next Ones” that are truly in the conversation for the first overall pick. Seth Jones, Patrick Kane, James van Riemsdyk, Erik Johnson and Phil Kessel are the most recent guys in the last eight or so years that had honest-to-goodness first-overall potential. Two of them ended up picked No. 1 in that span.
Now Eichel faces the challenge of competing with McDavid who has been rightfully built up as the best since Crosby, perhaps better than Avalanche wunderkind Nathan MacKinnon, and one of the game’s best talents outside of the NHL. It really wasn’t until after the World Junior Championship where Eichel outperformed his counterpart that the conversation shifted to McDavid being the presumed No. 1 with no close competitors, to it being a two-horse race.
This hype isn’t born out of mystique or hyperbole. The numbers are there, the talent is in plain sight and the wide range of opinions seem to be in agreement. The rest is up to the kid.
It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a 17-year-old, but as Eichel told Allen he wants it all. The attention and the McDavid comparisons seem to be sharpening him for the season that lies ahead.
“I look at it like it is a competition,” Eichel told USA Today. “I do want to go first overall. If he goes first overall, so be it. But I want to go first overall. He is my competition.”
There’s a lot that can happen in a year, from injuries to falling short of expectations. We’ve seen it plenty over the years, but something seems particularly special about Eichel. Soon, we’ll find out just how special he can be.