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Sabres smart to lock Eichel into eight-year, $80-million deal

Jack Eichel said he was comfortable playing the year without a contract, but the Sabres were wise to pony up $80 million over eight years to make sure their young star was locked up.

Almost one month ago to the day, Jack Eichel said he’d be willing to enter the season without a contract extension, and, in this very space, we wrote about the positives of doing so for Eichel. It would give him the opportunity to produce career-best totals over a full campaign, put up numbers that could see him among the league’s top 10 scorers and increase his value in a climate where players coming out of their entry-level deals were earning more than ever before.

For Eichel, it was a bet on himself, a bet that he was worth a contract more commensurate with Connor McDavid’s needle-moving eight-year, $100-million extension than the eight-year, $68-million pact that Leon Draisaitl inked this off-season.

It was also a bet the Sabres evidently weren’t willing to partake in. 

On Tuesday evening, Buffalo announced they had come to terms with Eichel on an eight-year, $80-million contract — dividing that up gives Eichel a $10-million annual cap hit — that has solidified the 20-year-old star center as the face of the Sabres.

Obviously, a deal like Eichel’s wouldn’t happen without McDavid’s precedent-setting contract with the Oilers, nor without Edmonton handing McDavid’s sidekick, Draisaitl, a more-than-healthy raise after what was one standout season. But, with those two contracts in mind, it’s also a deal that the Sabres had to make before the season kicked off. No doubt, the two sides could have talked contract at some point during the campaign and tried to hammer out a new pact, but in the event that the negotiations were put on hold until next summer, Eichel’s value could have risen even further.

If we’re considering Eichel’s 2016-17 performance, there’s reason to believe he could be about to enter the league’s upper echelon when it comes to production. Last year, a campaign in which he was sidelined for the first 21 games, Eichel was absolutely phenomenal. He scored 24 goals and 57 points, tying and setting new career-bests, and averaged nearly 20 minutes of ice time per outing. Eichel was the Sabres’ top scorer and the NHL’s 53rd-highest point-getter. On a per-game basis, though, Eichel was superstar-caliber. He scored 0.93 points per game, the 11th-best mark in the league, and despite missing all that time, he had more per-game production on the power play than any other player.

So, let’s say he produced at those rates again over the course of an 82-game season. That’s a 76-point campaign. Now factor in that he’s set to play a bigger role this season, won’t be hitting the ice for the first time in the regular season after having rehabbed a high-ankle sprain and has an ever-improving roster around him in Buffalo. Where does he finish then? With 80 points? What about 85? You can’t even really rule out 90-plus.

And what would that be worth? One has to imagine a true breakout season from Eichel, a campaign where he’s undeniably among the best scorers in the league, would have put him in line for upwards of $10 million on a new deal. And really, depending on how close he comes to McDavid in the scoring race, the comparison would have to be drawn between Eichel’s deal and the one McDavid signed. If 10 or 15 points separate the two players — who are linked forever by virtue of their 1-2 draft selection — would it really make sense to pay Eichel $2.5 million less than McDavid? Hard to suggest it would.

In the broader landscape of NHL contracts, Eichel’s deal is remarkably palatable considering its cost, too. Players with a cap hit of $9 million or more next season include P.K. Subban, Evgeni Malkin, Jamie Benn, Alex Ovechkin, Anze Kopitar, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Carey Price and McDavid. There are 11 others above $8 million per season, including Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry, Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux, Phil Kessel and Ryan Johansen. Eichel belongs among that level of talent now, but he will likely be viewed as a cut above several of the $8 million-plus players by season’s end, not to mention ahead of a few earning $9 million or more.

Of course, the onus now falls on Eichel to continue to prove his worth. Statistically, there’s very little doubt he can do so, but there will be more expected of him than merely putting up points. The Sabres have missed the playoffs for six consecutive seasons, but a new regime has come to town, headed up by GM Jason Botterill and coach Phil Housley, and the expectation is that this season marks the organization’s climb back to contention. Eichel will be the central figure in that. He recognizes as much, it seems, with agent Peter Fish telling the Associated Press’ John Wawrow that Eichel potentially left money on the table in order to give the Sabres the flexibility necessary to build a winner. One would imagine it’s also only a matter of time before Eichel has a ‘C’ stitched to the front of his sweater.

And if we’ve only gotten a taste of what Eichel can do from both an individual and team perspective, there’s no chance the Sabres will have even the slightest bit of regret about paying handsomely now for what would have cost them millions more later.

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