There’s no salvaging the Sabres’ season. That’s a simple fact. With 32 games remaining in the campaign, Buffalo is nearly 20 points back of the second-wild card spot in the East, dead-last in the entire conference and closer to fighting for top odds in the 2018 draft lottery than they are playoff contention. Their recent three-game winning streak isn’t enough to provide even a firefly-sized glimmer of hope. As far as this season goes, the 2017-18 campaign is as good as over.
The reality of the situation in Buffalo, however, is that the Sabres’ failings aren’t really all that shocking. Most knew coming into the season that Buffalo wasn’t projected for some great climb into contention. In THN’s pre-season projections, the Sabres were selected to finish seventh in the Atlantic Division. They were expected to miss the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season. And, frankly, finishing with favorable odds — possibly even in the top five — for the draft lottery was considered a given.
To say the Sabres’ season has been completely lost, though, wouldn’t exactly be true.
Bearing in mind Buffalo’s projected place in the standings, the Sabres entered this campaign with an eye on growth. And while it’s awfully difficult to suggest there’s been much of that from a team standpoint — the Sabres are on pace to finish with 17 fewer points than last season — Buffalo could at least hang its hat on the growth of its individual young players. Among those the Sabres wanted to see improve were defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, who is again logging monster minutes as the No. 1 defenseman on Buffalo’s blueline. Likewise, Buffalo wanted to see Sam Reinhart take a step forward in his development. But it was Jack Eichel whose progression this season was of paramount importance to the franchise’s future success, and if there’s any way to find a small sliver of light in what is another campaign outside the playoff picture, Eichel’s continued development would be it.
Barring the ability to win games singlehandedly for the Sabres, Eichel has been everything Buffalo could have asked for this season. After two seasons of playing second fiddle to Ryan O’Reilly as the Sabres’ top center, Eichel has taken the mantle this season. He has a higher average ice time than any other Buffalo forward, skates more even-strength ice time than any other Sabres center, logs top minutes on the power play and contributes in a secondary role to the penalty kill. And while he’s been somewhat sheltered in terms of where he starts his shifts, Eichel hasn’t been given easy minutes. Only Evander Kane has faced tougher competition among Buffalo forwards.
More than anything, though, it’s Eichel’s offensive contributions that have impressed. Already a budding star entering this season with 48 goals and 113 points in 142 games across his rookie and sophomore seasons, he’s elevated his offensive production to near superstar status. With 20 goals and 49 points through 50 games, Eichel is not only a near point-per-game player, he’s tied for 21st in league scoring, 21st in goals and has been an absolute devil for the opposition to contain, with his 177 shots on goal the ninth-most in the league. It’s not just that he’s putting up points, though. It’s that, with respect to impact on his own team’s ability to score, no player has had quite the same effect as Eichel.
Consider that through 50 games, the Sabres have the league’s worst offense with 115 goals. But the idea of Buffalo without Eichel is downright frightening. His 20 goals account for 17.4 percent of the Sabres’ total offensive output. The only players with a greater percentage of his team’s goals are Sean Couturier, Brock Boeser and current Rocket Richard favorite Alexander Ovechkin. But when it comes to pure points, there’s no one all that close to Eichel. Eichel has factored in on 42.6 percent of the Sabres’ goals this season, which is the greatest individual percentage by a decent margin. The next-closet player is Claude Giroux, at 40.3 percent, with Eichel rival Connor McDavid in third at 39.9 percent. And if you’re to focus solely on primary points — goals and first assists — Eichel’s still the league leader. He has a primary point on 33.9 percent, so more than one-third, of Buffalo’s goals. Nathan MacKinnon and Johnny Gaudreau rank second and third with primary points percentages of 32.1 and 30.7 percent for their respective clubs.
It’s well documented that the Sabres have pinned their hopes on Eichel, the 2015 draft’s second overall selection, and his importance to Buffalo’s future was made abundantly clear ahead of the season when he put pen to paper on an eight-year, $80-million contract extension that will kick in next season. To some, the contract was believed to be a mistake, the overpayment of a young star that came as a reaction to the eight-year, $100-million pact made between McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers. And while true that Eichel’s contract was surely influenced by McDavid’s deal, it’s next to impossible to look at his production level right now and his importance to the attack and suggest that Buffalo has in any way paid too handsomely for the 21-year-old’s services. That goes for this season and beyond.
So, sure, the Sabres won’t so much as sniff the post-season and stand a better chance at bringing consensus top prospect Rasmus Dahlin into the fold than they do playing any meaningful games in March or April. But this season has provided Eichel the opportunity to prove he’s one of the league’s premier forces, the rare player who can drive an entire team’s offense. And if he continues to build upon this performance for the next few years, he’ll not only be worth every penny he’s paid, but the Sabres won’t be forced to suffer through many more of these so-called lost seasons.
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