This will probably be the last time you'll see Jack Eichel listed as a No. 2 center in this blog. The 19 yr. old finished his rookie season with a team-leading 24 goals and a total of 56 points becoming the first Sabres rookie to lead the team in goals in nearly 30 years and the youngest Sabres rookie to hit the 50-point mark in 33 years. And by far he lead the team in electrifying moments.
Eichel is an extremely talented, yet very young player, who sends a rush of anticipation throughout the crowd every time he's on the ice. We haven't see a player like that in Buffalo since Gilbert Perreault was flying up ice with The French Connection. Although Eichel's skating isn't as graceful and fluid as Perreault's was, the speed he generates in a few strides is remarkable as he often leaves his opponents in the dust.
"Jack Flash" is all that in a well-sculpted 6'2" 201 lb. NHL frame and his ability to hit overdrive is stunning. Yet the cool part about Eichel is that he also has the brains to keep up with his speed plus the skills to finish whether a through a wicked, deceptive snap-shot or a smoove, effortless backhand going five-hole.
Buffalo's top center last season was Ryan O'Reilly, which was to be expected as the 25 yr. old was already a bona fide top-six forward with over 400 NHL games under his belt. O'Reilly lead all forwards in TOI/GM and PP TOI whilst being second at even strength (Evander Kane) and on the penalty kill (David Legwand.) Eichel was third in TOI amongst Buffalo forwards and at even strength and was second powerplay ice-time. Not surprisingly head coach Dan Bylsma used Eichel sparingly on the penalty kill (:22/game) but it's one area where he may want to reconsider as the speed and talent the Sabres can ice shorthanded could prove to be an asset.
Case in point.
Last preseason the Sabres scored shorthanded goals in each of their first five games. Eichel scored one in the first game and one in the fifth game, both on breakaways. The first one was a backhand that went five-hole and the second was a laser that went top-shelf glove side. On the latter, where he and the backchecker were once in the same area, after a few strides Eichel was crossing center ice while the defender was still at the Buffalo blueline.
Evan Rodrigues who was Eichel's linemate at Boston University and who also scored two goals for Buffalo that game described it this way to the gathered media post-game, "The second he got the puck, they were neck-and-neck about the top of the circle. Then he was at the red line, the backchecker was at our blue line. He’s so powerful. His first stride gets further than most guys’ fourth of fifth stride. Once he has one step on you and he has that wide frame, you can’t do anything from there.”
Granted, it was only preseason, but Eichel did show Bylsma how he used his speed and skills on the kill. “He’s used his skating for defending way more for play away from the puck than he has for offense,” Bylsma said after that Sabres 4-1 preseason win over Toronto. “Frankly, I didn’t really see that in a lot of the games I saw him play. … He’s tracked pucks down, he’s tracked back, he’s caught players, he’s stripped players, he’s played well away from the puck defensively down low with his skating ability. If there’s anything that’s changed my impression, that’s been it.”
Bylsma also acknowledged that he doesn't consider the penalty kill as an offensive opportunity. “I have never ever been part of a mentality like that. It would be one thing if we talked about scoring a short-handed goal or we’re looking for opportunities, which hasn’t been the case. It’s not something we’re trying to do, trying to look for opportunities to exploit. They’ve come and you’ve got a skilled player like Jack out there and it’s turned into two of them for us.”
Once again, perhaps they should reconsider a bit by adding skill into the mix. O'Reilly and Kane both have plenty of skill and both scored shorties during the regular season. The Sabres scored six in all which was in the middle of the league. Marcus Foligno had two while Legwand and Tim Schaller scored the others.
That said, Eichel had some growing pains last year as he hit a couple of walls in his first professional season. His routine in college was play games on the weekend and practice during the week as opposed to the grind of the weekly NHL schedule. Even with the Terriers playing for the national championship, Eichel still only logged a total of 40 games for the season as opposed to the NHL's 82 game regular season schedule. In December Eichel was feeling the weight of an extremely active off-season plus the grind of his first NHL season. But after getting some rest during the break he had a four-point night (2g+2a) in his hometown of Boston leading a Sabres come-from-behind 6-3 win and then proceeded to tack on another 13 goals and 23 assists 46 games.
He's looking to continue that pace this season after a rather calm summer and some adjustments to his schedule. During summer workouts in Buffalo Eichel talked about the differences between the whirlwind that was last year and a much calmer 2016 off season to WGR's Paul Hamilton. “It was good, it was nice to go home and spend some time there (during the off season) and be able to unwind more than I did last year and focus on training to prepare for the season.
“Last year I think I got better as the season went on in terms of practicing and being prepared every day to get out there and try to get better. There are a lot of guys on our team that you can look to for that. You look at Ryan O’Reilly and how hard he works at practice every day, so it’s something that I definitely want to improve on in year two and be more of a leader every day on the ice.”
If he progresses the way most expect, that preparation and acclimation to the NHL should yield some pretty hefty dividends beginning this season, enough to put him up top amongst Sabres forwards sometime within the next year.
Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster:
LW, Evander Kane/ C, Ryan O'Reilly/ RW, Kyle Okposo
C, Jack Eichel
D, Rasmus Ristolainen/ D, Dmitry Kulikov
G, Robin Lehner