Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart are the future up front in Buffalo. They're a big part of the present, as well, actually – but they are rookies in the best league in the world. With all the hype that comes along with the high picks (they were each taken second overall; Eichel last year and Reinhart the year before), it is important to remember an NHL career is a process – one that is filled with ups and downs.
“I do think it’s at another level for both of them – the number of games, the rapid succession of games," said coach Dan Bylsma. "That’s something they’re learning to battle through.”
Reinhart played nine games with the Sabres last year, but the team needed him to get stronger, so he was dispatched back to junior. He ended up being crucial to Canada's gold-medal win at the world juniors and helped Kootenay get to the second round of the WHL playoffs, while putting up an impressive 65 points in 47 regular season games.
The smart-as-a-whip right winger has four points in his past four games, playing on a line centered by Eichel, with power forward Evander Kane on the left side. Eichel himself has five points in the past five games and that line is Buffalo's top unit right now, even in terms of ice time. Not bad for Kane and a couple of kids.
“They’re learning every day," said veteran defenseman Zach Bogosian. "You see them get into a groove and get more comfortable. The first year is a whirlwind, with so much going on, but they’re handling it great.”
Bogosian noted that the 18-year-olds of today are much different than the 18-year-olds of eight years ago (that would include himself, as he turns 26 in the summer) and those players were much different that the 18-year-olds prior to that.
“They’re a lot more mature now on and off the ice," he said. "They have to be. They’re forced into the spotlight and all our young guys have handled it well.”
They key is managing expectations. Even for players like Eichel, Reinhart and Edmonton's Connor McDavid – who uncharacteristically has just one point in his past three outings – the grind is hard. Bogosian, who was always a beast of a physical specimen, even as a teen, says that man strength is just one part of the equation; there's also the learning side of the game that allows older players to read plays without putting their bodies in harm's way unnecessarily.
Luckily, Eichel and Reinhart are pretty smart cookies. For them, a lot of the mental work comes before the puck even drops at night.
“More than anything it’s about preparation, being ready to play every night," Eichel said. "Preparing on days before the game, at practices, just coming in and working hard. It’s a long season – you play back-to-back games, you’re travelling a lot, there’s a lot of ups and downs and you have to keep moving forward and keep a positive attitude.”
By this time last year, Eichel's season at Boston University was nearing the end. The Terriers had the Hockey East tournament to win (they did) before charging through to the Frozen Four final, where they were upset by Providence College. But that schedule was much more forgiving than the three games in four days (all in different cities) that Buffalo just completed. Oh, and Saturday features an afternoon tilt against a surging Carolina squad gunning for a playoff spot – so it doesn't get any easier.
On the other hand, what kid wouldn't want to be playing a starring role in the NHL at this time of year? There's plenty more hockey to come from Eichel and Reinhart and if they can keep up the preparation, playoff hockey will return to Buffalo soon enough.