At 18, center Jack Eichel set to make NHL debut with Sabres
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Jack Eichel had no trouble interpreting the cautionary message the Buffalo Sabres sent when they randomly assigned him a No. 41 jersey to wear for the team’s rookie developmental camp in July.
There would be no special treatment for the Sabres’ top prospect no matter how much buzz the 18-year-old center had created in Buffalo upon being selected with the No. 2 pick in the draft. If Eichel wanted to one day wear the number of his choosing, he would have to earn it.
”I wanted to be treated just like anyone else,” Eichel said. ”When the time comes, if it does come, then I’ll make the change from 41 to 15. But until then, I’ll be 41.”
Let the No. 15 Eichel era formally begin.
After wowing fans with numerous highlight-reel plays over the past month, Eichel has secured a top-line spot on the Sabres’ roster in preparing to make his NHL debut in Buffalo’s season opener against Ottawa on Thursday.
”It’s going to be a special moment for me,” Eichel said after practice Tuesday. ”It’s something I’ve dreamed of my whole life, stepping foot on the ice. I made the NHL. I’m trying to soak it all in right now.”
There has been a lot to take in even for a player accustomed to success.
At Boston University last year, he led the nation in scoring and became only the second freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s MVP.
Eichel has barely missed a step in making the transition to the NHL, while playing up to the pre-draft billing in which he and No. 1 pick, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, were both touted as ”once-in-a-generation talents.”
In four preseason games, Eichel led Buffalo with six points (two goals, four assists). Both goals were game-winners and scored on penalty-killing breakaways.
In the process, Eichel showed flashes of his deft playmaking ability as well as a powerful and effortless skating style.
That was no more evident than the opening goal he scored in a 4-0 win over Toronto last week.
Eichel began heading up the ice when teammate Nicolas Deslauriers intercepted a pass in the high slot. Fed the puck at his own blue line, Eichel took three strides to gain a clear-cut breakaway from center before snapping a hard shot that beat Jonathan Bernier on the glove side.
”I thought we had a 2-on-1. But at the end I saw that he was just a little faster than me,” Deslauriers said, smiling. ”If you get caught behind him, I don’t think you’re going to catch him.”
Coach Dan Bylsma is most impressed by Eichel’s all-around play.
”He’s really been skating way more defending and way more competitive in the back end than he has on offense. And frankly, I didn’t really see that in a lot of the games I saw him play (on tape),” said Bylsma, the former Pittsburgh Penguins coach who was hired by Buffalo in May. ”And if there’s anything that’s changed my impression, that’s been it.”
At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Eichel has a body already built to play in the NHL. He’s also shown poise for someone being hailed as a would-be savior for a win-starved fan base of a team coming off two consecutive last-place finishes and has missed the playoffs for four straight season.
Eichel downplays what his significance might mean on a rebuilding team that’s been restocked with young talent, including newcomers Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian.
”There’s buzz around the whole team,” Eichel said. ”But I think everyone needs to understand that things aren’t going to take a 180 overnight. It’s a process. And this is the start of the process of the Buffalo Sabres becoming a winning organization.”
Placing an emphasis on ”we’re,” he added: ”I think we’re the future.”
Veteran forward Matt Moulson has helped ease Eichel’s transition, by having the rookie live with him and his family.
”He’s a great kid. Our whole family loves having him around. My son gives him a hug every morning,” Moulson said. ”I think it just makes it a little easier when you’re an 18-year-old and not have to worry about some things.”
Eichel’s first concern is behind him now that he’s made the Sabres opening-day roster. There’s more steps to come, he warned.
”I’ve made the team to play the first game,” Eichel said. ”And I think every game is still another point for me to prove myself and prove that I deserve to be on this team.”