On Tuesday night in Toronto, the present and future of American hockey was on full display and it was a wonderful spectacle to watch. Jack Eichel, the second overall pick in the 2015 draft, and Auston Matthews, the first overall pick one year later, went hammer-and-tong, seemingly oblivious to the rest of the world and conducting their own anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better contest.
And Jack Eichel showed exactly why if the season were over today and the Sabres were in the playoffs, he and Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche would be the top two contenders for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable players. Of course there are others in the mix, but here’s the thing. In Edmonton, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have each other. The same goes in Boston where Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak feed off each other, along with their Hall of Fame-bound center Patrice Bergeron. But MacKinnon, because of injuries to teammates, and Eichel, because he has nobody around him to match his skills, have had to do things entirely on their own.
And the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-3 win over Eichel’s Buffalo Sabres displayed for all to see that if Eichel doesn’t get it done for his team, it ain’t gettin’ done. The gap between MacKinnon and the No. 2 scorer on the Avalanche is 23 points, which is the highest gap in the league. With his 49th and 50th points Tuesday night, Eichel has an 18-point lead on rookie linemate Victor Olofsson, second in the NHL. Eichel is on a 17-game point streak in which he has scored 16 goals and 31 assists, while most of the Sabres’ secondary scorers are going in the opposite direction. Jeff Skinner, who signed an eight-year, $72 million deal for his ability to produce offense, has 11 goals in 35 games and hasn’t found the back of the net in seven. Conor Sheary has five goals, Marcus Johansson has one goal in 19 games and Casey Mittelstadt was struggling so mightily he was sent to the minors.
“We have to push to find deeper scoring in the lineup for sure,” Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said after the Toronto game. “It’s excellent that Jack does that. He is playing at the top of his game, and it’s a pleasure to stand behind him every night here and see how much heart and soul he’s got, but in a game like this, we need more depth. We need the whole lineup to come through to be able to get points at the end.”
If he were to win the Hart, Eichel would be only the second player in franchise history to be named MVP, after the greatest Sabre (and in this writer’s opinion the greatest NHL goalie) of all-time, Dominik Hasek. If Eichel records a point Thursday night in Philadelphia, he’ll tie Gilbert Perreault for the longest scoring streak in franchise history at 18 games. At this point in his career, Eichel is trending in the same direction as the two greatest players in Sabres history. And at 23, he’s just getting going. (It’s actually freaky when you realize that Eichel is actually 15 months younger than Olofsson, who is one of the leading contenders for rookie-of-the-year honors.)
Eichel has spent a lot of time losing during his career, as evidenced by the fact that he’s in his fifth NHL season and is still waiting to see what all the fuss around these playoffs is about. He has found a soul mate in the indefatigably optimistic Krueger and things are going well personally. He grudgingly acknowledged that he’s playing the best hockey of his career right now, but isn’t getting caught up in the Hart talk.
“We’ve got a long year here,” Eichel said. “Not even halfway through the season. I’m not thinking about it at all. There’s a lot that our group needs to accomplish and a long way to go for us to be where we want to be, in the playoffs at the end of the year.”
The same goes for Krueger, who knows deep down that any success the Sabres have this season is inextricably tied to the production of one of the league’s most dynamic players.
“Is (Eichel) one of the best players in the league? He always has been for me since Game 1,” Krueger said. “Let everybody else decide right now. We just want to build a season here. We want to keep that picture really small, and if any of those things come at this team after the season, I’ll be the loudest cheerer in the room.”
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