Through no fault of his own, Jack Eichel will always be compared to Connor McDavid, the only player selected ahead of the Buffalo Sabres star center in the 2015 draft. In almost any other draft, Eichel would have been the top pick, but McDavid was otherworldly, an instant game-changer. Thus, with McDavid as the top pick, Eichel had to settle for second and an inextricable link to the Edmonton Oilers phenom.
McDavid, of course, has become everything he was projected to be and more. Anything anyone else from that draft has accomplished pales in comparison. McDavid is on pace to reach the 500-point plateau this season. No other player from the draft class has even his 300. But Eichel, who is quickly becoming one of the best and brightest young stars in the game, is the closest. His 297 points put him on the cusp of the milestone, and that’s in large part due to a breakout, 82-point 2018-19 campaign and a 2019-20 season that has started off even better.
With a three-point effort against New Jersey on Monday – his seventh outing with at least three points this season – Eichel extended his active point streak to 10 games and 19 points, the longest active point stretch in the league, and now has 38 points in 28 games. And this is the new Jack Eichel: a budding star who deserves to be in the NHL’s superstar conversation. On the ice, few players can control the puck on a rush or elude the league’s top defensemen the way Eichel can. His confidence level is sky-high and he hasn’t had an off night in weeks. And it’s becoming about more than just offense.
“I was most excited about his last couple of minutes, how he came to play without the puck, how hard he defended when they pulled the goalie out,” Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said of Eichel following Buffalo’s Friday win against the Toronto Maple Leafs. “He put one in the empty net, but it was the work he did before that I think that shows Jack is maturing right in front of our eyes. Every day is fun coaching Jack Eichel.”
And, at least as his own production is concerned, every game has been fun for Eichel. He’s on pace for a career-best 111 points, his ice time is at a career-high 21:38 and his 3.8 points-per-60 minutes at all strengths is a step up from his 3.1 career-high last season. Eichel is getting good mileage out of his opportunities, as well, with a 16.3 shooting percentage that is significantly higher than his 10.3 percent career average. All signs suggest that if last season’s production was a breakout, this season has potential to be a legitimate star turn for the 23-year-old.
Aiding Eichel in his rise is the obvious chemistry he has formed with Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson, who have combined to make the Sabres a dangerous offensive unit. The results are telling about who is driving the bus – and that trio – in Buffalo, though. Olofsson (22) and Reinhart (20) haven’t had near the offensive influence Eichel has through the Sabres’ 28 games. And it’s worth wondering what Eichel would be capable of if he had a linemate the likes of which those he trails in the scoring race do. To wit, McDavid has Leon Draisaitl and David Pastrnak has Brad Marchand. Imagine Eichel with, say, Taylor Hall. It’s wishful thinking, but the Devils need some defensive help and the Sabres have a few they’re looking to move.
Eichel has his eyes on a bigger prize than a scoring crown or individual accolades, however. Not once during his four previous campaigns in Buffalo have the Sabres made the post-season. That’s the goal this season. And if Buffalo can accomplish it, it’s likely Eichel’s star will shine a little brighter. The Sabres hope has to be that the injury bug that has plagued Eichel in the past – he would likely have three 80-point seasons to his name instead of the one had he not missed significant time during his second and third NHL campaigns – doesn’t rear its ugly head once again.
Given the team’s brutal schedule, featuring some of the NHL’s top teams in a short span, it’s crazy to think Buffalo is still near the top of the standings right now. But Eichel’s heroics are a major reason why. And if the Sabres are to avoid a collapse akin to the one suffered last November, navigate a tough schedule through the early part of December and punch their ticket to the dance, you can rest assured Eichel’s fingerprints will be all over the Sabres’ first playoff-bound season in nearly a decade.
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