Jack Eichel's first training camp is anything but normal

BUFFALO -- There is a "normal" routine for a player about to start his first season in the NHL.

For Jack Eichel, it was hanging out at his parents' home this summer, enjoying his mother's home cooking after living away from home playing hockey the past few years. It was getting to know his new landlords: Buffalo Sabres teammate Matt Moulson, Moulson's wife and two small children. He's playing goalie for Moulson's young son, who's too young to know that his new playmate is considered one of the great young talents in the game. And he went through his first physical on Thursday as the Sabres opened training camp.

But juxtaposed against these routines, which young players have experienced for decades, is the undeniable fact that "normal" really is a foreign concept for a player like Eichel, the second overall pick in June's draft.

"He's a special player," Moulson told ESPN.com Thursday. "Does a lot of things that probably 99 percent of the guys in the NHL can't do, and he's 18 years old. This kid's got some stuff that not a lot of people I've ever seen have."

Having once upon a time lived in Doug Weight's guest house along with 2009 No. 1 draft pick John Tavares, Moulson offered to provide refuge for Eichel in his own home.

In fact, it was the New York Islanders captain who urged Moulson to make the offer to Eichel.

"As a family, we wanted to make sure he was comfortable and seeing firsthand some of the maybe challenges that await a young kid with that much pressure and skill level," Moulson said.

"Just anything we could do to make it easier for him, and maybe having his laundry done and his food cooked for him and living in that family atmosphere, we can kind of get away from the rink rather than go home by himself and think about hockey all day is something that I think is beneficial."


Oh, yes. You might say that.

Never mind the long-suffering fans in Buffalo who have been flocking to every event possible involving Eichel since the Sabres selected him one spot behind another budding superstar, Connor McDavid, in June; players themselves are anxious to see what happens now that the season is fast approaching.

And it's not just the question of how Eichel will fare against the best players in the world, but how will he fare compared to McDavid with the Edmonton Oilers. Not since superstars Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin simultaneously debuted in 2005 has there been such hype and anticipation surrounding two rookies.

Standing in the hallway of First Niagara Center, Eichel said he thinks he can learn a lot from Moulson, the big winger, and is looking forward to growing his relationship with the Moulson family. He dutifully answered questions about his own expectations for the season; he hopes to contribute to wins but is taking nothing for granted, including making the team; and, of course, he answered questions about McDavid.

"There's always going to be comparisons between me and him, in that sense kind of like last year, we're in different situations," Eichel said. "He's out in Edmonton, I'm here in Buffalo. You kind of just try and worry about yourself."

How many times has he been asked about McDavid?

"It's been a lot. There's been a lot," he acknowledged.

Tired of it? Sure. Who wouldn't be? But no one is anticipating the questions and comparisons will go away anytime soon.

"No," Eichel said. "I don't think it will ever go away."

New Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma grimaces at the notion that every little moment for these two teenage players -- players who have yet to play one shift as NHL players -- will be judged against each other.

"I laugh at how short a view that is," Bylsma said.

Bylsma has seen Eichel's skill set up close, having been on the coaching staff for Team USA at the world championships last spring, where Eichel fit in well with a team that was a surprise bronze-medal winner. He is a great talent and he has NHL skills, but he's not an NHL player yet.

"There's going to be a period of adjustment," Bylsma said.

The same is true for all young players. Heck, all players regardless of their age.

But Eichel must learn to play in the world's best league without getting caught up in the cottage industry that is McDavid versus Eichel.

"He is going to have to deal with it," Bylsma said. "He's not going to be able to hide from it."

The two young men have been inexorably linked for several seasons, since they emerged as superstar teenagers: one (McDavid) playing major junior hockey in Erie and the other (Eichel) playing NCAA hockey at Boston University. McDavid edged ahead of Eichel in the predraft rankings but both are considered head and shoulders beyond the level of other teenage prospects.

Even with opening night about three weeks away, their arrival on the NHL stage is one of the dominating preseason storylines.

"The hype that surrounds these two guys, it's definitely exciting. It'll be fun to watch," said Eichel's new Buffalo teammate, Ryan O'Reilly. "They're two outstanding players. The highlights I've seen of them. Seeing Jack play at the worlds. On this stage it'll be amazing to see what they do because they definitely have the heads for it."

The former Colorado Avalanche forward, who signed a seven-year contract extension with the Sabres in the offseason, understands part of his role with the Sabres, along with Moulson and veteran Brian Gionta, is to provide guidance and create an environment that will nurture and support young players Eichel and Sam Reinhart.

"I think he's already got a great grasp on things and he handles himself with such maturity, I couldn't imagine doing that," O'Reilly said of Eichel. "When I broke into the league, I was kind of under the radar, surprised to make it, and I was living day to day. And for him it's the pressure and everything that's been on him he's handled it so well, which just shows his maturity."

If there is one player on the Sabres' roster who has an inkling of what Eichel is dealing with, it's Evander Kane. The fourth overall pick of the Atlanta Thrashers in 2009 was dealt to Buffalo by Winnipeg last winter and has a keen understanding of the ebbs and flows that await Eichel at this level.

"He makes some plays that a lot of guys with a lot of experience in the league, they can't make, so that's exciting," Kane told ESPN.com. "Obviously for him it's going to be a much different environment, a much different level. There's going to be ups and downs for anybody throughout the season, but especially a 19-year-old, as I know. So, it's going to be tough. We'll see how it plays out, but definitely looking forward to seeing what he can do at that age right now."

It's not just the game itself, but the life that will present challenges for Eichel, Kane noted.

"Just in the locker room," Kane said. "You've got 30-year-olds, 35-year-olds with four kids and a wife and you're just 18, just got out of high school. It's a different environment. It definitely takes some learning just knowing how things work at the NHL level, at the professional level.

"From what I've seen, he's handled it really well and he's obviously been pretty impressive."