The Buffalo Sabres lost the draft lottery on Saturday and to the extent that they only ever had a 20-percent chance of winning it, general manager Tim Murray was mega-bummed to settle for second place.
He was so disconsolate about not getting Connor McDavid that his exit interviews at the lottery came with the deadened intonation of a hostage reading a list of demands.
“I'm disappointed for our fans,” he said of the people who cheered for his team to lose games down the stretch. Later, when it probably dawned on him that he was, ahem, settling for Jack Eichel, he also added “We're happy with second; two franchise-changing guys in this draft.”
Franchise-changing indeed. I can't speak to the quality of Connor McDavid personally, having seen him zero times live and probably only six or seven on television, but what I can tell you about Jack Eichel is that there has probably never been a draft-eligible freshman in NCAA hockey of his caliber. It might not, in fact, even be close.
Throughout the year I was crunching some numbers for College Hockey News, and that included taking the time to do the obvious comparison: Eichel vs. Paul Kariya. The latter, of course, is famous for scoring 100 points in 39 games as a freshman for Maine back in 1992-93, but hockey in general was much higher-scoring back then. So it made sense that one would try to adjust for the era-related factors to see which was actually more dominant relative to their competition. The answer was Kariya, very narrowly, but that 25-75-100 points line includes — and has always included — nine points in two exhibition games against Canadian teams. (The reasons why this is the case, and all the math, are explained here.)
So if you take those out, which you should because Eichel doesn't get that benefit, it seems that the future Sabre had the most dominant age-18 season in modern NCAA hockey history. He scored 26-45-71 in 40 games against players as much as seven years older than him. It's an astonishing feat.
But that, of course, doesn't factor in how good Connor McDavid is and was and will be for the next decade and a half at least. There has, in a lot of scouts' minds, been significant separation between No. 1 and 2 for a while now. They see McDavid as The Next Sidney Crosby. They see Eichel as The Next I Dunno Steve Yzerman Or Something. Both are going to probably end up as all-time great players, but you'd rather have Crosby than Yzerman. And it's not a slight against Yzerman — or Eichel for that matter — to say that.
What we really need to consider, then, is the impact such a player is likely to have at the NHL level as a rookie. Fortunately, Rob Vollman long ago concocted a way to measure NHL equivalencies for non-NHL leagues like the OHL and Hockey East, where Eichel and McDavid each played.
Obviously neither Eichel nor McDavid would approach their output in their draft year if they'd played it at the NHL level, and there is in fact a sharp drop-off from the quality of the best league in the world to these development leagues. A point in Hockey East, for example, is probably worth about 0.33 points in the NHL, and a point in the OHL is probably worth 0.3.
By this measure, we arrive at these NHLe numbers:
Now, these numbers are not hard and fast by any means, but they certainly give you a good idea of how to project things. (And indeed, the Hockey East NHLe number isn't exact; since conference realignment, it's gotten harder to score in that conference, meaning that Eichel's numbers might even be improved from about 18-30-48 for a season he started at age 17.)
Even in a hypothetical scenario in which all the CHL-based rumor-mongers were correct and Eichel did play the entire season in the QMJHL, rather than college hockey, he'd have done it playing as the No. 1 center on the Halifax Mooseheads with Nikolaj Ehlers on his wing. That's Nikolaj “went 37-63-100 in 51 games this year” Ehlers to you. He and Eichel together would have crushed the QMJHL, and both might have approached 200 points. If that sounds like an exaggeration, it's really not much of one.
(The common thing college hockey people point to when they talk about the quality of defense in college hockey is what Charlie Coyle, also of Boston University, did when he jumped to the Q midway through the 2011-12 season. That year, he went 3-11-14 in 16 games for BU, and for St. John he annihilated the competition for 15-23-38 in 23 games. College hockey people love to talk about the Charlie Coyle Multiplier, which isn't wholly fair, but you could count on Eichel — who was much better as a freshman than Coyle was as a sophomore — to at least double his output per game if Coyle could roughly do the same.)
And honestly, I think Eichel could have done better this year even in college. McDavid benefited from having Dylan Strome, who's a pretty good player in his own right, as a linemate this year. Eichel had Sharks fifth-round pick Danny O'Regan on one wing, and then a split between undrafted sophomore Ahti Oksanen (who has a good shot) and undrafted Evan Rodrigues (who has a good all-around game and strong hockey sense, the latter of which better suits what Eichel needed). Good college hockey players, but certainly not guys you'd ever take in the draft lottery. Rodrigues in particular proved a very capable sidekick to Eichel after Oksanen was shuffled off the top line in early January. BU coach David Quinn has criticized himself for not making that move sooner.
Not that the hypotheticals matter.
What we can also do here, though, is look at Eichel in comparison with the other No. 1 picks of the last few years. It's not a stretch to say that if he had been born a few weeks earlier, he would have been No. 1 overall ahead of Aaron Ekblad. In fact, he'd probably have been the No. 1 pick in any recent draft year that wasn't Nathan MacKinnon's, and he likely would have given MacKinnon a run for his money. Just look at the points-per-game situations for each of the No. 1 picks from 2005 (Sidney Crosby) to last year (Ekblad) and see how Eichel and McDavid alike stack up.
Now, you'll note that the vast majority of those players come out of the OHL, which probably says something about that league's defenses (not to disparage the players, but the average Puck Daddy reader who can skate backwards probably puts up 0.33 points per game in that league). Only Crosby and MacKinnon (QMJHL), Nugent-Hopkins (WHL), and Eichel (NCAA) are from outside the O. It's just that much harder to score and post these mega-impressive numbers elsewhere.
Do you not take 1.78 points per game against grown men? Does that not compare with extreme favor to Stamkos and MacKinnon, who are looking pretty good so far in their NHL careers? But that raises another issue.
Eichel's production is historic because few players of any age since Kariya are breaking 1.78 points per game, let alone freshmen who started the year at 17 (barely; he turned 18 on Oct. 28, less than a month after the season began).
So Eichel is older than most of these guys, and that probably doesn't help his draft stock much. He's about three months older than McDavid, and was nearly nine months older than Crosby in his draft year. But nonetheless, scoring like an OHL-level No. 1 pick in his draft year against college hockey teams is absolutely bananas.
This has been said before, but as far as what Buffalo will be getting at No. 2, it's a lot like the 2004 draft. In terms of impact, they're not getting their Alex Ovechkin. They're “settling for” Evgeni Malkin.
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