Jack Eichel had a lot of time on his hands. Sidelined by an ankle injury for the first quarter of last season, there was only so much rehab the Buffalo Sabres center could do. So with some free time to spare, he decided to get a new hairstyle. In what can only be described as an awesome tribute to late 1980s hip-hop, Eichel got a fresh look from his barber: big on top, shaved on the sides. “I gave him free reign,” Eichel said. “We have a tight relationship and I told him to do whatever he wanted. I liked it. I ran with it.”
When he finally returned to the ice last season, his game matched his fade. Eichel went full beast mode, averaging 0.93 points per game, 11th-best league-wide. And there’s very good reason to believe Eichel will be even better this season. During his summer training regimen with Kyle Czech, Boston University hockey’s strength and conditioning coach, Eichel was on a mission to take his already elite game and pump it up a notch. “I’ve worked with a lot of athletes, and he’s different,” Czech said. “When you’re training Eichel, he’s always locked in. He’s extremely technical, and he always wants to know why he’s doing something.”
Czech relates all his routines to hockey, targeting muscle groups and firing patterns to optimize results. For Eichel in particular, the focus was on his first stride and acceleration, and to get there, loaded sprints were on the menu. For a hockey player, running on its own doesn’t offer much. But if you put on a harness and pull a weighted sled as you run – a loaded sprint – then your chest comes down and your shins are at a different angle. It utilizes different muscle groups, more quads and glutes, and makes more sense for players looking to work on their skating. In the case of the loaded sprints, it’s all about hockey-applicable exercises.
Eichel’s skating was already great when he was burning college opponents in his Terriers jersey. He already had a long stride. It was just a matter of getting more explosive from a static start. “With an athlete like Jack, the smallest changes make the biggest difference,” Czech said. “He’s really good at picking up minor details.”
Which is great news for the Sabres, who are still tailing behind in the Atlantic Division despite employing Eichel and two-way star Ryan O’Reilly. But finding players like that is the hard part. “This is a league that thrives on centermen,” said Sabres GM Jason Botterill. “The fortunate thing here is we have a couple amazing high-end centermen.”
Despite Eichel’s brilliance last season, the Sabres missed the playoffs by a wide berth for the sixth year in a row. Discord was a consistent theme, and the firing of coach Dan Bylsma and GM Tim Murray came at an awkward time, with unsubstantiated rumors about Eichel’s relationship with Bylsma. For his part, Eichel said he’s more than happy to be in Buffalo and wants to take on even more responsibility. “As someone who wants to be in that leadership role and wants that pressure and wants to be in the Sabres organization, I feel like we just need to put it all together,” Eichel said.
And while Botterill doesn’t want to put a timeline on how long it would take for the Sabres to contend for a Stanley Cup, it’s fair to say the fans are hoping for at least a playoff berth soon. Bolstering the blueline with the additions of Marco Scandella and Nathan Beaulieu will help, though the most galling thing for Sabres fans is that they're now playing catch-up with the hated Toronto Maple Leafs and Auston Matthews.
The 20-year-old Eichel, who will continue to be mentioned alongside his draft mate Connor McDavid and his Team USA buddy/NHL rival Matthews, doesn’t shy away from the challenge of meeting his peers’ early triumphs. “As a competitive guy, you want to succeed,” he said. “It makes you want to push harder. And with players like Auston and Connor, you can see the league is going in the right direction.”
Let’s not sell Eichel short in this conversation, either. If Buffalo is going to emerge from the mire, he will be leading the offensive charge. Top-line centers with his combination of size, speed and skill are crucial to any respectable rebuild, and they cannot be discounted. “Jack is an amazing player,” Botterill said. “What’s exciting for me is the drive that he has. You look at his track record in college and even the simple thing of playing at the world championship this year. Here’s a player who wants to be playing in April and May. Those are the players we want in our organization.”
Eichel would also like to see his squad come through in the clutch more often this season. “As a group, we were a bit inconsistent (last season),” he said. “We’d need to win a couple in a row, and it seemed like we couldn’t put that together. You lose one you thought you should have won, or lose a lead, or give up two points for one...that was the tale of our year.”
Now it’s time for the Sabres to step up, and a healthy Eichel will make a world of difference. “He kind of has an extra sense,” Czech said. “He knows, down to a science, what his body needs.”
Sometimes it’s a bunch of anaerobic exercises and static starts. Sometimes it’s a fresh new haircut. In the end, the result is the same: Eichel looking good.