Jack Eichel is trying not to think about it too much.
The North Chelmsford native could be the first overall pick in the 2015 NHL draft. He could be the first American to go No. 1 since Patrick Kane in 2007. He could be the first Massachusetts native to go No. 1 since Rick DiPietro in 2000.
"Obviously I want to be the No. 1 pick. It's a dream of mine. It's a goal of mine. But I really try not to think about the draft too much because it can get to your head," Eichel said after a recent workout at Boston University's Agganis Arena, his home for the 2014-15 season.
The hype surrounding his mini-rivalry with Ontario's Connor McDavid -- his competition for next year's top pick -- is well on its way to Taylor Hall vs. Tyler Seguin levels. Some are saying they'll be the best 1-2 since Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin back in 2004.
"I don't really consider it a one-on-one rivalry," Eichel said. "People are always talking, but you really can't think about stuff like that. Guys will pass you if you stop working and think about stuff like that. You have to block the media out and just focus on what you have to do."
He's been called "the best U.S.-born center prospect since Mike Modano," a Hall of Famer and the highest-scoring American in NHL history. Due to his combination of speed, strength, size (he's 6-foot-1), vision and a quick release, he's been compared to Ryan Getzlaf and Jeff Carter, a pair of NHL All-Stars.
"Those are NHL All-Stars and Hall of Famers. I'm a freshman at Boston University right now. I have a long way to go before I can ever be compared to players like that," Eichel said.
It would be easy for Eichel to lose sight of where he is now and get caught looking ahead. Obviously getting drafted is a dream of his, and possibly going No. 1 only adds to the excitement. But Eichel has learned that the best way to get where he wants to go is by focusing on the present, not dwelling on the future.
Take, for example, Eichel's discovery of the U.S. National Team Development Program. The program brings many of the best under-18 players in the country to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to play and train together. As soon as Eichel heard about it, he knew he wanted to be a part of it. His father, Bob, said he became "obsessed" with the idea. The problem was that Eichel was only 12 at the time, meaning the USNTDP was at least a few years away.
So Eichel did everything he could to put himself in position to get an invite to Ann Arbor when the time came. When he was 13, he tried out for and made the Boston Junior Bruins' B team, which competes in the Empire Junior Hockey League. Eichel had faced kids a year or two older than him before, but now he was an eighth-grader in a league that featured players as old as 19 or 20.
For the first time in his career, Eichel struggled. After dominating pretty much from the moment he put on skates -- his dad said "it was weird" how quickly he picked the game up as a kid -- Eichel went nearly a full month without a goal to start the 2010-11 season.
But he kept working at it. He learned how to play against bigger, stronger and faster players. He learned how to take hits and get rid of the puck quicker. By the end of the season, he was averaging nearly a point per game, good for seventh on the team in scoring.
Hockey became a year-round sport for Eichel. Until then, his parents hadn't let him play in the summer because they wanted him to have a life outside hockey. But as Eichel got older and better, they accepted the inevitability.
The new level of devotion paid off. Eichel dominated the EmJHL in his second season with the Junior Bruins, posting 39 goals and 47 assists in 36 games. He was clearly ready for a new challenge, and he got it in the form of the USNTDP invite he had been hoping for.
Considering it had been a dream of his for years, leaving home and moving to Ann Arbor was an easy decision for Eichel. Before he left, though, he had another decision he wanted to make. He wanted to decide where he was going to college so it wouldn't weigh on his mind all season.
Eichel grew up watching college hockey (more accurately, he grew up watching any hockey he could get his eyes on), and as was the case with the USNTDP, he made it a goal of his to eventually play at that level. Eichel had actually been a Boston College fan, with his father saying that BC was his "dream school" as a kid. BC showed interest in Eichel, but he wanted to make sure he looked at all his options.
As he did that, he found himself drawn to BU more and more. He liked Agganis Arena and its top-notch facilities. He liked Jack Parker and the pro style his team played. He liked BU's connection with Mike Boyle, one of the most respected trainers in the country and someone Eichel had worked with previously.
"I never would've thought five, 10 years ago that I'd go to BU over BC," Eichel said. "It ended up just being a better fit. I got that gut feeling that BU was a better place for me."
So Eichel made a verbal commitment to BU and headed out to Ann Arbor for his next challenge. Making the under-17 team meant another step up in competition, as the USNTDP squads play mostly United States Hockey League teams. The USHL was packed with college prospects and future NHL draft picks who were even stronger and faster than what Eichel had faced in the EmJHL.
Eichel adapted again, though. He got better off the puck and learned how to use his talented teammates. He led the team with 0.89 points per game over 37 games that season, and added 10 goals and eight assists in 22 games while playing up with the under-18 team. Danton Cole, his coach in Ann Arbor, said the attributes that make Eichel so good were evident from the start.
"He dominates hockey games, especially from a physical standpoint," Cole said. "When he has the puck, his puck protection is outstanding. He gets the game played at whatever pace he wants. He can slow it down and shield the puck from you, and he can also play a really fast game and blow by you. He's a load to handle, that's for sure."
It was during that 2012-13 season that Eichel really started to make a name for himself in regards to the 2015 draft. He played for Team USA in the World Under-17 Challenge, with Game 1 coming against an Ontario team that featured Connor McDavid, who was already being called "The Next One" by that point.
Led by McDavid, Ontario jumped out to a 4-1 lead and appeared to be well on its way to an easy win. But then Eichel took over. He scored an unassisted goal late in the second period to cut the lead to 4-2, and then scored another unassisted goal midway through the third to tie the game at 4-4. The U.S. went on to win in a shootout, but the score was almost a side story for many who were there. The lingering takeaway was that Eichel had looked every bit McDavid's equal.
"That was a lot of fun for people in the hockey business," Cole said. "It was a heck of a hockey game, and those two young men were extremely good in it. They definitely were at a different level. I think anybody who was at that game would agree with that. I think it allowed people to see that Jack was in that class."
Now, obviously that was just one game. Nobody was ready to say Eichel could beat out McDavid for the top pick in 2015 just yet, especially after Eichel got injured two games later and missed the rest of the tournament. Everyone wanted to see more from him, which meant there would be plenty of attention on Ann Arbor for his under-18 season.
Before Eichel went back to Ann Arbor for the 2013-14 season, though, he had a couple of things to think about. In March 2013, as Eichel was finishing up his under-17 season, Jack Parker announced his retirement after 40 years behind BU's bench. Needless to say, Parker was one of the biggest reasons Eichel had committed to BU.
Eichel's father told him to take his time and figure out if he still wanted to go to BU or if he wanted to change his commitment to another school. Outsiders speculated that the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League would be an option, but Eichel and his father said that was never seriously considered.
Eichel stayed quiet and didn't make any decision for the remainder of the school year. When school ended in June, Eichel returned home and met with new BU coach David Quinn the next day. Quinn said the meeting was "outstanding." Eichel's dad said he "really hit it off" with Quinn. Eichel said he "never second thought" his commitment to BU after the meeting.
The next thing on Eichel's mind last summer wasn't any sort of decision, but rather a disappointment he had to get over. Even though he would be a "double underage" (a 17-year-old in a primarily 19-year-old tournament), Eichel was hoping he would be invited to USA Hockey's World Junior evaluation camp. He wasn't.
According to Quinn, this became an important teaching moment for Eichel.
"I said to him, 'Jack, you could go up there in August and lead that camp in scoring and have the best camp out of anybody, but if you don't play well from September to December, you're not making the World Junior team,' " Quinn said. "I told him, 'When September starts, just be the best player you can be and you'll have a chance.' "
The message was to focus on the things he could control, and that's what Eichel did. He went back to Ann Arbor determined to take his game to another level. He worked even harder in the weight room. He studied more video. He improved all aspects of his game, especially his defensive play.
"He just wants to be a better hockey player," Cole said. "The guys that have a lot of talent and also have that passion and that drive to get better, they're the ones that are really dangerous. They're the ones that become elite players. Jack has all that."
By the time December's World Junior selection camp rolled around, Eichel had 19 goals and 20 assists in 22 games. It was enough to convince the World Junior coaching staff that they needed to give Eichel a look. After not being invited to the summer evaluation camp, Eichel was brought in for the final selection camp.
He made the team and didn't look at all out of place in the tournament. His speed, puck protection and ability to create scoring chances made him one of the team's top forwards, and, in a testament to his improved defensive play, he was used in all situations. He posted five points in five games (good for fourth on the team in scoring) to go along with 15 shots on goal. By comparison, McDavid tallied four points and 10 shots in seven games for Canada.
Eichel had outperformed McDavid in the biggest showcase for under-20 players. The whispers that had started at the Under-17 Challenge a year before were turning into open conversations in hockey circles. Eichel really could challenge McDavid for the top pick in 2015.
Quinn saw Eichel become an even more confident player as a result of his World Junior success.
"He got some confidence on the world stage," Quinn said. "I can make a four-foot putt all day long when people aren't watching. Put 100 people standing around the green, it's a whole different putt. What Jack did is he made that four-foot putt and approached it the same way with 100 people around as he would with no one around."
Eichel carried that confidence into the second half of his USNTDP season and finished the year with 38 goals and 49 assists in 53 games, good for the fourth-highest point total in the NTDP's 18-year history. The only players to put up bigger numbers were Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel and Andy Hilbert, and they did it while the under-18 team played in the North American Hockey League, a step down from the USHL opposition that Eichel faced.
Now Eichel is ready for his next challenge. He accelerated his schooling so he could attend BU this fall, meaning he'll start his freshman season as a 17-year-old (he'll turn 18 on Oct. 28). Being that young in the toughest conference in college hockey, facing players as old as 23 or 24, might seem a bit daunting.
Eichel's current coach, Quinn, noted that Eichel will struggle at some point this season because every freshman does. But his former coach, Cole, says Eichel has what it takes to minimize any struggles he might encounter.
"I don't really have much of a doubt that Jack's going to go in and be an impact player," Cole said. "We played 17 games against college teams this year -- he missed some of them because of World Juniors -- but there weren't too many he played in when he wasn't the best or one of the best players on the ice."
Regardless, it's probably safe to say Eichel won't match the 1.64 points per game he averaged last year. BC's Johnny Gaudreau was the only player in the NCAA to average that this past season. McDavid, meanwhile, will once again dominate in the Ontario Hockey League, facing players his own age. You could make the case that this puts Eichel at a disadvantage in the battle for the top pick, but Eichel doesn't see it that way. He takes the opposite approach.
Eichel knows that becoming a better player is more important than his stats and more important than going first overall. And he knows that facing older competition makes him a better player. His experiences with the Junior Bruins, the USNTDP and the World Junior team serve as evidence.
Eichel also knows that he can't worry about next summer. Focusing on the present is what eventually got him to the USNTDP. Focusing on the present is what eventually got him on the World Junior team. If he does end up going No. 1, it will be because he was focused on getting better each day throughout BU's season.
"I think the draft will take care of itself," Eichel said. "I'm just worried about getting better, and BU was the next step in my development. I think it's going to be great for me this year. I think it's going to get me ready to play at the next level, whenever that is. I'm just excited to be here."