With each new season comes a new crop of hockey talent eligible for the NHL Draft. Some classes are more noteworthy than others, as appears to be the case with a 2015 draft class that will include a marquee battle for the draft’s top spot between the Erie Otters’ Connor McDavid and Boston University’s Jack Eichel.
One of those two top prospects, Eichel, is in Buffalo, NY to take part in the 2014 CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game taking place at the First Niagara Center, home of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. Eichel will be joined by 41 other American-born prospects eligible for next June’s draft, including another potential top-five selection in Boston College defenseman, Noah Hanifin.
This is the third edition of USA Hockey’s prospects showcase, and the second time it has been held in Buffalo. In 2012 at FNC, the marquee name for that game was defenseman Seth Jones, who was eventually chosen fourth overall in the 2012 NHL Draft by the Nashville Predators. This time around, Team Grier and Team Olczyk, squads coached by and named after former NHL forwards Mike Grier and Ed Olczyk, will feature Eichel and Hanifin, plus a number of other talented prospects from what looks to be a strong American draft class in what appears to be a deep and talented draft overall.
Both coaches had the chance to skate for the first time with their respective squads in the gameday skate at FNC. Much of the talk following those sessions centered around Jack Eichel, the BU freshman forward viewed as a potential franchise player once he moves to the NHL. Both Grier, who will be coaching Eichel, and Olczyk, who will be attempting to contain him, came away impressed with what they saw of the talented Terrier.
“First, I’d say that he is a real humble, down-to-earth kid,” said Grier of Eichel. “For me, I got to spend a lot of time with him in the Boston area and around BU. He’s got a lot of things thrown on his plate early, and he handles everything with ease. It would be pretty easy for him to have a big head but he doesn’t, so I think that’s the most impressive thing about him.
“But he’s got a very unique skill set – he’s got a long reach, great hands, sees the ice very well, but at the same time he can snap the puck and score goals. And, as you guys will see tonight, he’s got one of the most unique strides you’ll see; he can get through the neutral zone in a heartbeat, and when he really opens it up and goes it looks like it’s effortless, but he is flying. He’s an impressive player.”
For Olczyk, who is now a color commentator for the “NHL on NBC” as well as the Chicago Blackhawks, aspects of Eichel’s game that stand out are the desire and smarts he displays each time he sets foot on the ice.
“Just from watching him on television, and seeing and talking to a lot of people, obviously he has a very high skill level,” Olczyk said of Eichel. “I said something earlier about “want to”, you can see with a lot of these kids, and Jack in particular, there’s a lot of “want to” there.
“To watch him up close and personal, you really see the little things, and those are the things as a hockey guy that you look at. You see what they do, maybe before it happens, then how they react to it, because I was lucky enough to live it for a long time as a player and coaching, and now doing what I do for a living, you see how guys react to certain situations and you go, “wow, he really gets it!”. You don’t see everything, but all of a sudden a guy will find a way to make a play, and it’s not even the spectacular stuff, it’s the anticipation and the hockey awareness. But I’m very excited about seeing him. We’ll maybe look to go to a shutdown unit at some point if he’s lighting us up, but I’m sure Coach Grier has something up his sleeve, as well.”
While Olczyk will be facing a top-flight talent in Eichel, he’ll also have one at his disposal in Hanifin. And, while Olczyk hasn’t had an extended chance to view his talented defender in action, he is certainly impressed with what he has seen so far.
“I’ve only seen him a little bit, and again as I said a little bit earlier about Jack, you see the offensive “wow” factor that he has,” said Olczyk of Hanifin. “I saw a lot of these kids – I was doing a little bit of work prior to this, I was in Green Bay for the Fall Classic in the USHL, so got a chance to see a lot of the Ann Arbor kids up close and personal. I think that the aspect of his game and watching him last year and obviously him being in college now, just that dynamic, offensive guy – the teaching aspect for a lot of these kids will come – it’s knowing when to go ahead and try to make those plays.”
In addition to the bevy of hockey talent that will be participating in this year’s game, also in attendance will be dozens of talent hawks from NHL teams looking to get a first read on some of the more high-end talent available for this year’s NHL Draft.
For Olczyk, letting the players play their game and keeping things simple should go a long way towards helping the players to cope with the pressure.
“It’s just like anything else, you can tell kids a lot of things, but they’re going to get caught up in it, said Olczyk. “I think most importantly for Team Olczyk is, we’re going to tell our guys, look, don’t try to be overly pretty, don’t try to do too much, if you think it’s right, do it. You’ll see guys try to make some plays that probably they shouldn’t, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the surroundings and being in a place like Buffalo.
“We want these kids to feel comfortable as much as they can. There is only so much you can do in a short period of time – all these kids play in different leagues and different teams with different systems, so all we’ve tried to do is just pretty much give them paint-by-number, real easy stuff that, they’re going to go out there and play to their strengths.”
In the end, this is just one game at the start of a long season, so there will be many more opportunities for the players to impress scouts as the season goes along. From Grier’s standpoint, the main pleasure will be the chance to view a great collection of talent in one setting.
“There’s a lot of talent on both teams,” said Grier. “It’s a pretty impressive group, and just seeing the kids, I was just saying how big and athletic the kids are. All the kids out there are big, and they can move and snap the puck. So, it’s an impressive group, and it should make for a fun game tonight.”