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Eichel could win big by entering season without contract and betting on himself

Jack Eichel said he'd be willing to enter the season without a contract and play out the year. It would be a bet on himself, but it might be a gamble well worth taking.

As the clock winds down to the start of the new season, the Buffalo Sabres and Jack Eichel continue to discuss a contract extension with neither side putting pen to paper on a new pact. But don’t go believing that’s of any concern to Eichel.

Throughout the off-season, Eichel, 20, has asserted his desire to remain a Sabre and his belief that a contract will get done at some point. Some believed that meant a deal would come in late July. There were those who thought August would be when the two sides would reach an agreement. And others yet were of the mind that the first few days of September would see Eichel and the Sabres shake hands on a contract. None of that has come to pass, however, and it has opened the door for Eichel to enter the campaign without a fresh deal. That’s a chance the Sabres’ standout center seems more than willing to take, too.

“I have no problem playing the year out,” Eichel told Buffalo’s WGR Sports Radio on Tuesday. “If that happens, it happens. I'm pretty adamant about staying a Sabre and staying in Buffalo, but it's not something I can really control. I can just control my play.”

Of course, from where Eichel is sitting, it makes all the sense in the world to bet on himself. In his rookie season, Eichel was good, if not great, posting 24 goals and 56 points across a full campaign. He skated top-line minutes almost right out of the gate and did a bit of everything for Buffalo, including boost the power play by putting up eight goals and 21 points with the extra man. But Eichel’s freshman season doesn’t hold a candle to his sophomore year, which, even after a delayed start, was proof positive that Eichel has what it takes to be a bona fide star in the NHL.

Despite missing the first 21 games of the campaign with an ankle injury, Eichel got back into the lineup in late November and seemingly didn’t miss a beat. He put up a goal and an assist in his season debut, two goals in his second game back and by the time his personal campaign was 10 games old, Eichel had five goals and eight points to his name. As the season wore on, Eichel only improved, and his 24 goals and 57 points were enough to respectively match and surpass his rookie campaign totals. Again, note that he missed more than one-quarter of the season.

Eichel’s success measured against some of the league’s best was equally impressive last season, too. In fact, his scoring rates were among some of the best in the league. His 24 goals in 61 games gave him a .39 goals per game rate, which was the same as or better than the likes of Connor McDavid, John Tavares and Filip Forsberg. His .54 assists per game pace was the same or better than noted playmakers such as Tavares, Joe Thornton and Jonathan Toews. And when the season concluded and Eichel finished with a .93 points per game rate, he ranked 11th in the entire league. He posted a better mark than Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Vladimir Tarasenko, Johnny Gaudreau and Alex Ovechkin.

Across a full season, those would be great totals, too. For sake of argument, let’s say Eichel were to play a complete 82-game slate and his point paces remained exactly the same. That would leave him with 32 goals and 76 points by the time 2017-18 ended, putting him oh-so-close to the coveted point-per-game mark in just his third season in the league. Only nine players, including McDavid, Nikita Kucherov and Brad Marchand, had better offensive campaigns. It would make Eichel an almost definite top-10 scorer, an all-but-certain all-star and likely put him into award discussions. And if the Sabres improved — and given the additions around Eichel and Co., it seems likely Buffalo will — that’s another feather in Eichel’s cap.

Beyond that, there’s also the matter of comparable contracts. Right now, most would consider something in the range of the Draisaitl contract, an eight-year, $68-million deal that carries an $8.5 million cap hit, to be a close comparable for what Eichel is worth. That’s especially true when it appears it’s being used as a comparable for David Pastrnak, who is likewise looking to land an extension before the season begins. If Pastrnak signs for similar money, it establishes the $8 million-plus range as the going rate for a young player of that point-per-game calibre. But what then if Eichel surpasses both Draisaitl and Pastrnak in terms of production?

Should Eichel manage to do so, he could entirely change the equation for himself. No longer would he be considered to be on the same plane as Draisaitl and Pastrnak, but instead a step above. And with that, he could command an even greater salary. No one is about to suggest the Sabres are going to throw McDavid money — $12.5 million per season — at Eichel, but it’s not far-fetched to believe Eichel could drive his value up beyond $9 million with another career-best, top-producer season. He’s only going to get better as he grows as a player and a full season with a better team around him stands to increase his production to the point he’s commanding an even greater salary.

That’s not to say there isn’t a counterpoint to all of this in which Eichel takes a step back and hits a slump in his third NHL season after avoiding one in his sophomore campaign. That could happen, too. And in this scenario, with Eichel prepared to bet on himself if that’s what it comes down to, anything that allows for a better value contract would be the gamble the Sabres would have to be willing to take. At this point, though, it would seem ill-advised, because Eichel seems ready to enter the league’s upper echelon at any moment, and not locking him up now could mean he’s set for even bigger money come the conclusion — or even the middle — of the coming campaign.

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