BUFFALO – Dan Bylsma, as he loves to do, kept accompanying his words with a sly grin. The so-called rivalry between phenoms Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid is a “made-up” scenario, the Sabres coach said Tuesday.
The Sabres’ 2-1 overtime loss to McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers was the first-ever NHL meeting between the “generational talents” drafted first and second overall last year. The rookies barely know each other.
How could they truly be rivals?
“The hype is produced,” Bylsma told a packed media room prior to the game.
Still, Bylsma understands why the fans and media – everyone, more or less – produces so much of it.
“They’re great players,” he said in the same breath. “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.”
Naturally, both slick centers downplayed Tuesday’s tilt. It didn’t help McDavid scored 22 second into the game and the winner.
“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.”
Of course, the 19-year-olds acknowledged the game – remember, the Oilers rank 30th overall and the Sabres 26th – is good for hockey. The First Niagara Center had a buzz Tuesday 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.”
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 64 games into his career. McDavid, meanwhile, has only played 28 contests.
“It’s too early to put a huge significance on it,” Bylsma said.
Despite being linked together, Eichel and McDavid have only met a few times. Sure, they spent time together during draft activities and share a mutual respect.
“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 other 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 today.
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 less than a season together, Eichel grew close to winger Jamie McGinn, who the Sabres traded to the Anaheim Ducks on Monday.
On the ice, Eichel often played with McGinn, a 13-goal scorer. Off it, he loved to joke around with his friend “Jimbo.”
“The relationship we had together is a pretty good one,” Eichel said. “He’s definitely going to be missed. It’s tough to see him go. Just to see the attitude he brought to the rink every day, bringing a smile and a good attitude. Going to work, he puts his head down and knows what he has to do. He was a good friend of mine. It’s tough to see him go.”
The Sabres recalled rookie Dan Catenacci and Cal O’Reilly prior to the game, giving them 18 healthy forwards.
Catenacci grew up down the street from McDavid in Newmarket, Ont., and spent years playing with his older brother, Cameron. Even when McDavid was a kid, Catenacci could see he possessed incredible talent.
“You see guys with high-end skills as kids, but you never know if they’re going to turn out,” Catenacci said. “I’ve always been very impressed with him.”
Catenacci, who played his fourth NHL game, sometimes skates with McDavid in the summer.
Notes: The Sabres scratched defenseman Cody Franson (neck). … Two Oilers – defensemen Adam Pardy and Andrej Sekera – finished the 2012-13 season with the Sabres. Only two Buffalo players in Tuesday’s lineup – winger Marcus Foligno and defensemen Mark Pysyk – played with them. … Wheatfield native Adam Clendening played his seventh game for the Oilers. The defenseman started the year in Pittsburgh and was briefly property of Anaheim before joining Edmonton. … Former Sabres star Miroslav Satan watched the game in the press box.