Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid will be associated with one another as long as they are both playing hockey. The latter was taken with the first pick in 2015, while the former was picked second. Going into that draft, most agreed that both were potential generational talents, capable of lifting whichever team picked them out of the NHL’s basement.
It didn’t take long for either forward to make an impression. McDavid posted 16 goals and 48 points through 45 games as a rookie. Meanwhile, Eichel was lighting it up for the Buffalo Sabres. He scored 24 times as a rookie and finished with 56 points in 81 contests.
While they were both taken in the same draft and talking heads will insist on keeping the McDavid-versus-Eichel storyline alive for the next decade-plus, they aren’t on the same level. That’s in no way a knock on Eichel. He’s a fantastic player and has one of the best shots in the league.
It’s just that McDavid is on a tier shared by maybe two or three other players at any one time. He’s elite in every sense of the word, surpassing the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jamie Benn in terms of average points scored per game.
Over the last two seasons, only Patrick Kane has a better PPG number than McDavid’s ridiculous 1.17. He’s one of just five forwards to average a point or more per game over the last two campaigns, again indicating that he’s simply on the highest plane of production possible at the age of 20.
Would anyone be surprised to see him build off and surpass the 100 points he posted in 2016-17? How high can that number climb? Could he get to 110 or 120? It’s not outside the realm of possibility for McDavid.
It is for Eichel, who is great in his own right but hasn’t come close to making the case for being one of the five best forwards in the NHL. His 0.80 points per game since 2015 is good for 26th in the league. That puts him around supreme talents like Joe Thornton and Anze Kopitar, so there’s nothing to be ashamed of there.
Still, there’s a real and demonstratable gap between the two young players.
That’s likely why the Sabres and Eichel have yet to agree to terms for a contract extension over the past few weeks. If they were close in money and term, we wouldn’t be discussing this right now. He’d presumably be locked up for seven or eight seasons at a cap hit that makes sense for both the player and team.
But that hasn’t happened yet, and general manager Jason Botterill has said that negotiations will continue throughout the summer. Negotiations shouldn’t be particularly tricky in this case. Eichel has established himself as a top-25-ish goal scorer — his 0.34 goals per game over the last two seasons rank him 32nd — and he should be paid as such.
A cap hit in the realm of $6 or $7 million seems fair given what Eichel has proven he’s capable of doing since entering the league. He may even be able to argue for $8 million, depending on how far he wants to push it. The McDavid contract will have a long-lasting and perceivable impact on these kinds of negotiations, however. Now, every player who views himself as elite will want Connor McDavid money.
Eichel and his camp need to realize that he’s not a $12.5 million cap hit player. That’s OK, but this story has a chance of really running away from the 20-year-old if an extension doesn’t get done sometime early in the season. Fair or not, there are already perception problems dogging the forward after the Sabres cleaned house this summer.
If he is asking for something in the neighborhood of McDavid’s $100 million, he could quickly go from face of the franchise to major heel.
Of course, Eichel does have another option. He doesn’t have to sign a max-term extension. If he belives that he’s better than his first two seasons show — and maybe he is — a four-year deal with a $6 million or $7 million cap hit would make more sense.
It’s ridiculous to call a $24 million contract a prove-it deal, but in this instance, that’s what it could be. The reasons are different in both cases, but Artemi Panarin and Nikita Kucherov are skating on these kinds of contracts. Kucherov’s cap hit clicks in at less than $5 million because Steve Yzerman is a wizard, but the idea is for him to play his way into a monster contract in 2019.
There are only two roads ahead of Eichel that make sense. Take a seven- or eight-year contract worth somewhere between $56 million and $64 million, or take a shorter deal in hopes of getting a bigger extension further down the road. Getting McDavid dollars is simply out of the question, and it should be.
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