Noah Hanifin and Jack Eichel, being both friends and friendly foes, had dinner together recently.
Both are NHL rookies, Hanifin with the Carolina Hurricanes and Eichel with the Buffalo Sabres. Both are 19, both from the Boston area. Once college rivals – Hanifin at Boston College, Eichel at Boston University – they’ve been workout partners in the summer and plan to be again this summer.
Their dinnertime discussion, Hanifin said, wasn’t all about hockey. But Eichel, the second overall pick of the 2015 NHL draft, did express some thoughts about playing in a market such as Buffalo, N.Y., with such keen hockey interest, with so many expecting instant stardom.
“There’s pressure on him up there,” Hanifin said. “He talked about it. There’s definitely a lot of pressure there, and it’s a big sports town. He has a lot of weight on his shoulders, but I think Jack’s going to do a good job with it.”
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Eichel has 22 goals and 49 points in 73 games. While he wasn’t much of factor Tuesday in the Sabres’ 3-2 win over the Canes at PNC Arena, he twice had the winning goal against Carolina in the two games played in Buffalo this season.
In a 3-2 win on March 10, Eichel took a pass from Evander Kane – a high flip out of the Buffalo zone – and beat goalie Cam Ward with a deceptively soft shot below the pads. One second remained in overtime. Bedlam in the arena.
“That’s a poised play by a young guy,’ Canes coach Bill Peters said.
It’s also the kind of play – replayed on NHL Network, TSN and ESPN’s “SportsCenter” – that can help a rookie win the Calder Trophy.
Eichel may not be a clear front-runner for the rookie of the year award but will get a lot of votes. There’s much to pick from this season, including forwards Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, Artemi Panarin of the Chicago Blackhawks and Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings, and defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere of the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Hurricanes’ Jeff Skinner was the Calder winner in 2010-11, breaking into the league at 18 and scoring 31 goals while being selected to play in the NHL All-Star Game in Raleigh.
“It’s special,” Skinner said of the Calder. “A lot of things have to go your way for it to happen. You have to be put in the right situation, and I was put in a good situation with good players. Everything sort of fell into place and I was fortunate to win it.”
But there also can be a downside to winning. In short, what’s next? Expectations are ratcheted up.
Skinner scored 20 goals in his second season, missing 16 games with a concussion. Defenseman Tyler Myers, who won the 2010 Calder with the Sabres, said he struggled handling the acclaim, the questions.
“I think for any player, when you have a good year, you want to build on it and grow from it,” Skinner said. “Sometimes, things don’t always work out that way and you have a tough year.
“To win the Calder and have a great rookie season, a lot of things have gone your way. Players put pressure on themselves. When you have expectations from what you did last year, it’s tough to duplicate.”
McDavid, 19, was the first overall pick of the 2015 draft and his Calder chances appeared over when he broke a clavicle in early November. But after missing three months, he had 14 goals and 42 points in 39 games before Wednesday’s games.
Eichel has missed one game and has been able to handle the grind of the season plus media demands, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said.
“Every place we go it’s another camera on him, another question asked of Jack,” he said. “I think he’s handled it with some good grace and good attitude but it’s a lot to handle for a young kid.”
Hanifin, the fifth overall pick in the draft last year, said he has known Eichel since they were 8 and says his Boston buddy is Calder-worthy.
“Jack’s one of the most explosive and probably one of the fastest skaters in the league already,” Hanifin said. “At the same time, he has that big body. He’s really tough to contain.”
As for Eichel, he downplays any Calder talk.
“It’s one of those things where you want to be the best at everything you do and you want to be considered the best,” he said. “That usually takes care of itself, after the season.”