BUFFALO – The so-called rivalry between top draft picks Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid, well, that’s simply a “made-up scenario,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said.
Bylsma, as he’s known to do, said that with a sly grin. Like just about everyone else, he wants to see the youngsters dubbed generational talents face each other for the first time tonight when the Sabres host the Edmonton Oilers.
“The hype is produced,” Bylsma told a packed media room this morning. “They’re great players. We want to watch them both play. I’m curious to see how Jack does, how Connor does. I don’t think there’s a head-to-head matchup that’s going on tonight, per say.”
Clearly, neither rookie is buying into any hype. Both slick centers, as you might expect, downplayed their first NHL meeting.
“We’re playing the Oilers tonight, we’re not playing Connor McDavid,” Eichel said. “Obviously, he’s a key component to their team. He’s a good player. You should be aware when he’s on the ice.”
McDavid added: “I know that a lot of people are going to maybe tune in because they’re looking at it maybe a little differently, but for us … it’s not about just me or him; it’s about the game and two teams that both need wins.”
Still, the 19-year-olds understand tonight’s tilt – remember, the Oilers rank 30th overall and the Sabres 26th – is good for hockey. The First Niagara Center had a buzz this morning usually reserved for the second or third round of the playoffs, not a match between two dregs destined for another lottery pick. Both players spoke at a podium instead of inside the dressing room because of the demand.
Eichel knows things like talking about McDavid is “part of your job” and “part of playing hockey.”
“It’s something you take as you go along in your career,” he said. “You just kind of go with it. It’s not really a big deal. It’s just like another game day.”
Having coached Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins for six years, Bylsma knows all about superstar rivalries. Crosby and the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin have been pitted against each other for a decade.
Eichel, however, is only 63 games into his career. McDavid, meanwhile, has only played 27 contests.
“It’s too early to put a huge significance on it,” Bylsma said.
The two barely know each other. Sure, they spent time together during draft activities and share a mutual respect. But they’re not close.
“I don’t have a bad relationship with him at all,” Eichel said. “We have, I guess, kind of a small one. We got to know each other a little bit. We had some good times and good experiences.”
McDavid added: “The media always has us pegged as not liking each other and being rivals or anything like that. We really don’t know each other.”
McDavid knows Buffalo, a city that fawned over him a year ago, well. During his illustrious junior career with the Erie Otters, he often visited here. In his only game here, he scored four points.
“It definitely feels like a second home,” McDavid said about Buffalo.
In other Eichel-McDavid news, the two should be World Cup teammates later this year. Both are cinch picks for the Under-23 North America roster that will be announced Wednesday.
The tournament has never combined talent from two countries before.
“That concept of the World Cup, I think it’s great for the game,” Eichel said. “It’s definitely going to help grow it.”
In game news, goalie Robin Lehner will start for the Sabres. Dan Catenacci and Cal O’Reilly have been recalled from the AHL, giving them 18 healthy forwards.
Eichel, who has zero points in four games and one goal in the last 13, will pivot Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart tonight.