Offseason cleansing puts Sabres, Eichel in upbeat mood
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Jack Eichel was in such an upbeat mood upon reporting for the start of training camp Thursday, the Buffalo Sabres star center felt comfortable enough to engage in some humorous banter with reporters.
Asked if the numerous offseason additions management made to upgrade an underachieving roster eliminated any excuses for the Sabres from showing marked improvement this year, Eichel winked and said: “There’s always going to be excuses. We’re professional complainers.”
The room then erupted in laughter when Eichel was playfully asked when he began developing a sense of humor.
“Ho, ho,” the second player selected in the 2015 draft responded with a smile. “I’ve had it. I just don’t have one with you guys.”
Whatever cloud of negativity darkened Eichel and many of his teammates’ demeanors in finishing last in the standings for the third time in five years appears to have been lifted.
In its place is what Eichel and others contend is a belief things might finally be looking up for a team in the midst of a franchise-worst seven-year playoff drought.
For Eichel, it took a long summer of self-reflection and open lines of communication between players and coaches to settle whatever differences there might have been in a bid to get everyone pulling in the same direction.
“Last year, we want to put that behind us at this point,” Eichel said. “There’s a lot of new people in here. I think there’s a new mindset. There’s a new standard and I think you’ll see different group of guys with the way we conduct ourselves, the way we handle ourselves.”
He credited coach Phil Housley for nurturing the discussions, and being open to input.
“He’s done a lot of communicating with us in terms of seeing our side of things and trying to figure out what management can do, coaches can do to make our relationship mend better,” Eichel said. “Obviously, you’re not going to agree on everything, but as I said, we’re taking a lot of right steps.”
Housley in turn credited his leadership group in engaging in frank discussions, including being open to criticism.
“We talked about change at the end of last year, right? There’s a lot of people in that locker room, a lot of players that needed to change, and this is myself included,” Housley said entering his second season. “If you are going to make a difference and you want to change the direction of this franchise, we have to change as people.”
Time will only tell whether this offseason-long cleansing takes hold.
That said, something needed to change in Buffalo after last season ended with now-former Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly suggesting he had at times lost his passion for playing, and that a losing culture crept into the locker room.
This was a team with a high-priced lineup that wilted in the face of adversity. Buffalo endured losing streaks of four or more games seven times in going 25-45-12 and becoming the NHL’s first team to finish 31st following the addition of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
O’Reilly was traded to St. Louis in July, in one of many moves general manager Jason Botterill made to change the team’s makeup. He also acquired two-time Stanley Cup winner Conor Sheary in a deal with Pittsburgh and playmaking forward Jeff Skinner in trade with Carolina.
And that doesn’t include an expected influx of youngsters, headed by 18-year-old Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin , the first player selected in the 2018 draft.
“I can only speak from this day that there’s a different vibe going on in that room,” Housley said. “There’s an excitement. Obviously, we haven’t been tested, and we have a lot of work to do. There’s going to be adversity. It’s going to be really interesting to see how we handle that.”
UNSIGNED: Forward Sam Reinhart, a restricted free agent, is the only Sabres player not signed. Botterill on Monday said both sides continue to talk, and he’s hopeful a deal will be reached. Reinhart spent much of the past two weeks skating with his teammates in Buffalo.
CAPTAIN MY CAPTAIN: Housley says he’s going to spend the next month evaluating whether he’ll name a captain this season. The Sabres have not had a captain since Brian Gionta was not re-signed after the 2016-17 season.
IMPORTANT DATES: The Sabres open their preseason at Columbus on Monday, before returning home to host Pittsburgh the following day. Buffalo opens the regular season hosting Boston on Oct. 4.