In the world of the NHL, with 32 teams, their players, staff, and prospects all trading places, there is always room for additional storylines to present themselves. Nothing is permanent, the length of a contract, the seconds in a game, even games in a career. As the seasons wear on and go by, as rivalries ebb and flow, as the history books are rewritten, there is always a deeper context when two teams meet in the playoffs, as the Edmonton Oilers square off against the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2023 Western Conference Semifinal.
There is also a flow of new context, as there was approaching the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. It was in the months before the draft that the talents of two teenagers, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, would become arbitrarily intertwined. McDavid, of course, was the generational talent, oozing an otherworldly element of speed to a dominance not seen since, until this season. Eichel was the only prospect that could even dare to challenge McDavid for the draft’s top choice, excelling at the NCAA level. Ultimately, on draft night in 2015, the Oilers took McDavid first overall, with the Buffalo Sabres selecting Eichel second.
It is poetic that on the eve of Connor Bedard’s arrival to the NHL that McDavid sets the league ablaze with one of the greatest all time individual regular seasons in league history. That hardly matters now, in the playoffs, where McDavid’s Oilers meet Eichel’s Golden Knights. Their journeys here have had their own twists and turns along the way, but they find themselves in the present moment, squaring off on the ice.
Some would argue that this is the first substantial, consequential, if not meaningful time, from an NHL standpoint, that the two find themselves in true opposition to each other. That being said the two players, as well as their respective franchises, drew comparisons because of this shared draft experience. Let us briefly retrace the steps that have been taken on our journey here.
There might have been only slightly more NHL teams than usual in a state of shambles, comfortably settling to the bottom of the 2014–15 standings. One thing, though, was for certain, some of these bottom teams were tanking much more aggressively than usual. Four teams stood out as particularly poor, as the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Arizona Coyotes joined the Oilers and Sabres in forming the bottom of the standings. The Sabres and Coyotes had some success in the years prior, while the Leafs and Oilers had been toiling in terrible seasons. All four had fanbases with lowered expectations heading into the season, as soon as halfway through the year keeping one eye on the potential to add McDavid.
The Sabres were the most aggressive in trading players away, though the Coyotes were not far behind. Perhaps it was for their long-standing struggles that the Leafs and Oilers came into their results more naturally, but the Sabres divested an infamous amount of capital into future assets.
The draft lottery came up once again for the Oilers, who had recently drafted first overall three times, selecting Taylor Hall, Nail Yakupov, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with the top choices. The Sabres would pick second.
Their consensus was clearly in favour of McDavid as the top choice, with only the hottest of takes suggesting otherwise. Eichel was a fantastic prospect in his own right, and likely would have been an easy choice were he in the Hall, Yakupov, or Nugent-Hopkins drafts. Despite losing McDavid, who played for the nearby Erie Otters, optimism surrounded the Sabres in having Eichel. Being openly referred to as a “heck of a consolation prize” in the draft lottery is not exactly the nicest way to frame Eichel’s talents, but it was the commonly accepted frame of reference.
Naturally, some meetings in international tournaments between Canada (McDavid) and the USA (Eichel) might have added to the pageantry, but these were merely set dressing to the debate over draft order.
With the discourse of the offseason centred around team building concepts, critical eyes beyond the Oilers and Sabres fan bases chimed in. Was it smart to scorch as much earth as possible? To risk it all for a top pick? Does one need to win a lottery to reach the ultimate victory, the Stanley Cup? Were teams like the Carolina Hurricanes, finishing low in the standings but not low enough to draft one of the cornerstone centres failing to see the bigger picture? Only time would tell, but we could ask as much as we wanted.
NHL career stats
McDavid’s career stats
Eichel’s career stats
Entry level deals
McDavid and Eichel wasted little time in becoming dominant NHL players. McDavid was over a point per game, 48 points in an injury shortened 46-game season. Eichel started a bit slower, earning 56 points in his first season of 81 games.
McDavid would play at a hundred point pace, at least in every season since then, and was taking over the mayor for best player in the world out of his three-year entry level contract.
Eichel was a fine player in his own right, nearing the point per game pace by the end of his entry level deal. That being said he was the Sabres’ leading scorer in his second and third seasons, after finishing four points back of the team lead during his rookie year.
This is where an unfortunate reality sets in for both players and their fan bases. Coming out of their rookie deals, now signed to some of the highest cap hits in the league, neither had reached a stability of team success at this point.
McDavid and the Oilers went on a playoff run in his second season, advancing to the second round, but had plummeted out of the playoffs in the two following seasons. What was once an inspiring start to the McDavid era Oilers faded into the darkness that preceded it. GM Peter Chiarelli was fired after failing to build a team that could support the talent of McDavid and fellow MVP Leon Draisaitl enough to even finish in the top half of the Western Conference.
Meanwhile, the Sabres had as much, if not more turmoil. Eichel’s Sabres had failed to qualify for the playoffs once during his time with the team. As coaches, general managers, and scouts were let go from the team, the environment became increasingly toxic. Centre Ryan O’Reilly—who would go on to win a Stanley Cup as playoff MVP with the St. Louis Blues in 2019—famously questioned his enjoyment of the game while on the Sabres. Nothing seemed to go right for the franchise which had an effect on Eichel and his reputation league wide.
It wasn’t too long ago that both McDavid and Eichel were put to the court of public opinion in an undesirable light. Despite their obvious individual talents, could either be a good enough leader to be on a good team? Was their scoring empty-calorie, their defence porous enough, their team’s poor record enough to question their skills?
As the COVID-19 pandemic hit and changed the world inside and out, both players, the league around them, and the world at large were impacted. Eichel’s Sabres were out of the playoff picture once again, not even relevant enough to earn an invitation to the NHL’s 2020 playoff bubble in the summer. Eichel would require a serious neck surgery that he and the Sabres disagreed on. Ultimately, between the injury and the ensuing squabble with the Sabres, as well as a trade request, Eichel missed most of the 2020–21 season as well. With so much happening in the world, the Sabres steeped in their usual irrelevance, and Eichel’s being off the ice, any excitement for his hockey skills was muted. If anything, the office story between him and the Sabres became the narrative of prevalence.
McDavid’s Oilers did not fare much better, losing to the lowly shell of the Chicago Blackhawks in a best of five play in series. As deadline buyers losing to the lowest ranked team in the bubble, the mood surrounding the Oilers was gloomy. In his first year as GM, Ken Holland had not improved the outcome much, despite the strange circumstances.
The following season in the North Division, the Oilers did not necessarily acquit themselves much better. After a second consecutive strong regular season, the Oilers were embarrassed in the playoffs, losing an overtime-filled sweep at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets. Though McDavid was clearly the league’s best player, there seemed to be little help for him beyond Draisaitl.
Change enacted from a new coach occurs much more quickly than change from a new GM, a fact that Holland and Oiler fans are welcomed for. Jay Woodcroft helped turn around an Oilers team in danger of missing the playoffs altogether. The disparity between COVID-19 relatives in Canada versus the USA, pandemic rescheduled games and player absences, as well as limited capacity allowed for Canadian teams, the Oilers did have their fair share of obstacles, but the result was not good enough. The whispers of whether McDavid would tolerate this performance from the Oilers grew louder, to a league wide talking point.
Woodcroft signalled a change in all that. Hired in February 2022, Woodcroft would usher in the spring to the air, the fans to the arena, and the Oilers to the playoffs. McDavid and Draisaitl cement themselves as MVPs with an incredible playoff run, though the Oilers are undoubtedly improved.
Meanwhile, Eichel is traded to the Vegas Golden Knights and is finally able to get the neck surgery he wanted to. After the surgery, Eichel makes a full and fairly speedy recovery though it is too late for the Knights. A bad luck season of their own, filled with injuries, the Knights are weakened and not a factor in the playoff race by the time Eichel returns to action. Eichel has missed a bunch of time, and isn’t quite his sharpest, although such might be understandable.
Of course we are most familiar with the here and now. McDavid’s game continues to evolve offensively and defensively, as does the play of the Oilers around him. A legitimate contender, McDavid authors his tiniest individual season to date, and the Oilers win a playoff round in back to back years, with the chance to go for more before them.
Meanwhile, this has been a breath of fresh air for Eichel and the Golden Knights. With a new coach of their own, Bruce Cassidy, the Knights have been by far the best NHL team that Eichel has been a part of. They have evidently found their way back into the playoff after their first non-playoff season in their brief history. Healthy and acclimatised, Eichel has returned to form. Roughly a point per game, Eichel led the Knights in point scoring and was one back of Jonathan Marchessault for the team lead (in goals in nine fewer games).
For the first time, Eichel has made the playoffs, and has won a round already. With five points in five games against the Winnipeg Jets, Eichel is finally where we all envisioned him on his draft night, leading his team against McDavid’s.
This might be the first of many playoff matchups between McDavid’s Oilers and Eichel’s Golden Knights, as both are clearly relevant teams in the Pacific Division. The rivalry could spark with new conflict over that time, but their draft status has become but a tidbit, as there is not much being made of the personal draft connection between McDavid and Eichel at this point.
If anything, as much as this story of two prospects frames the playoff series at hand, it provides some food for thought for the teams and fans focused on the 2023 NHL Entry Draft. The top five teams in that draft, the Oilers, Sabres, Coyotes, Leafs, and Hurricanes have all had different paths since then. None have won the Stanley Cup, yet. Despite where they picked in the 2015 draft, their journeys had several other pivotal moments, for better or for worse. There are more important things to a team’s future than another percent or two in the lottery or another draft slot or two up the board.
There is a group of four players, at least, right behind Bedard in Adam Fantilli, Leo Carlsson, and Matvei Michkov who would all be in conversation for the top position in other drafts, just as Eichel was. It won’t go according to plan, that is about the only certainty we can have, but all have the ability to be top contributors to playoff success like McDavid and Eichel have become.
This meeting between the Knights and Oilers represents a lot of things, but in part it is a happy story that highlights how these two great athletes have overcome obstacles and found their way into great situations. Despite the ups and downs, the questions and concerns, both relied on their talents, efforts, and work ethics to have a chance to keep fighting for a Cup this season.
Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire