By Jason Buckland
The moment came just two games into the phenom’s pro career.
Whoa, the 18-year-old thought. This is the NHL.
Nearly nine minutes into the third period, on his new home ice inside Buffalo’s First Niagara Center, Jack Eichel skated along the right hip of Steven Stamkos, the Lightning star who was gliding, almost passively, toward the net. Just then, he struck. With Eichel only inches to his rear, Stamkos accelerated suddenly, shuffle-stepping left in front of the goal, where a Ryan Callahan pass from behind the crease found his stick. Crisp. Fast. Lethal. Before Eichel could scarcely move, the puck was in the back of the net.
Whoa. This is the NHL.
Eichel skated from the ice that afternoon, a 4-1 loss, one of many Sabres shortcomings during his debut season in professional hockey, certain Tampa Bay was the best team he’d ever played. That Stamkos, whom Eichel had grown up watching on TV, scored on him made the game no less surreal.
“It was kind of an eye-opening moment for me,” Eichel, now 19, said. “I was kind of in awe out there.”
In the NHL, as in life, there is no substitute for experience. And yet, no matter that Stamkos and the Lightning ate his lunch right out of the gate, Eichel did a fine job last season making himself appear like an old pro.
Nabbed by Buffalo with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, Eichel was immediately cast in an impossible role: he was the GTAM, the Guy Taken After McDavid. But Eichel, despite considerably less hype than the Oilers’ coveted young center, projected as a star in his own right.
Born in North Chelmsford, Mass., some 28 miles northwest of downtown Boston, Eichel excelled at every level before the pros. He was a U.S. NTDP leader who dropped 71 points in 40 games in 2014-15 at Boston University, where as a freshman he won the Hobey Baker Award, given to the nation’s top college player. Eichel found himself in good company: since the prize was first given in 1981, the only other freshman to be so awarded was Paul Kariya, in 1993.
After one year in college, Eichel bolted for the NHL, where he joined a talent-poor Sabres team projected to stay near the league’s basement again. Buffalo did, winning just 35 games and finishing seventh in the Atlantic Division, though Eichel provided his part.
North Chelmsford’s unofficial motto, found on signs and bumper stickers across town, is “Don’t Tread on Me,” and indeed Eichel quickly established he belongs in the NHL. He missed only one game all season, felled with the flu in March, and put up 56 points, good for second among all rookies. More than that, those points, which included 24 goals, were also second-highest on the Sabres. If it weren’t already known, it was made clear last season: Buffalo’s future will be tied to the fate of its rising young star.
Eichel’s transition from precocious teen to reliable pro began shortly after he was drafted. However, it came not through an on-ice drill or a sit-down with Buffalo brass – rather, an extended hand from a team veteran. Early in the summer, Matt Moulson, then an eight-year pro with four NHL teams on his resume, reached out to Eichel to offer his home to the new draftee for his rookie season.
The decision came easy. Moulson was well-liked on the Sabres roster and he had successfully brought along another prized rookie once before, hosting John Tavares for his debut season in 2009-10, when Moulson was with the New York Islanders.
So Eichel moved to Moulson’s home in East Amherst, a hamlet outside Buffalo. There, he almost assumed the role of third child to Moulson and his wife, Alicia, who already had two young kids, daughter Mila and son George. Eichel relished in the home-cooked meals crafted by Alicia. While Mila and George ate in their high chairs, Alicia often watched nearby in a seat by the kitchen bar. Eichel and Moulson sat next to each other across the room, many nights with the TV on while they chowed down.
“I couldn’t have had more fun living at their house,” Eichel said. “For them to take me in and do everything for me out of the goodness of their hearts shows what kind of people they are.”
If, by living with Moulson and his family during his rookie year, Eichel was brought along as a pro in a safety bubble, he could not escape the realities of the NHL lifestyle the other half of the year, when his team hit the road.
The season’s length, the travel and the hotels were all largely new to the teen, though Eichel came to embrace the perks of being a budding NHL star. He roomed with teammate Sam Reinhart in every city throughout the year, the comforts and luxuries of each town’s finest lodging not lost on him.
He took nothing for granted. Eichel enjoyed shopping in some of the finest stores and boutiques across the continent, and meals out at tony restaurants like Beauty & Essex in Manhattan’s Lower East Side or Mastro’s Ocean Club in Newport Beach were thrills he did not dismiss.
Of course, there was still hockey to be played, and no matter how high a draft pick you are, the first run through a full NHL season is an exercise in stamina no new player makes it through unscathed.
“It’s your rookie season,” Eichel said. “You play 82 games. You definitely hit a few walls.”
When he hit them, in the middle of the year and again, by Eichel’s account, toward the end of the season, it was a mental hurdle he leaned on physical repetition to clear. If he went a stretch without scoring – “You’re used to that, your entire career, scoring goals,” said Eichel, who had two seven-game runs last season without putting one in the net – there would be Eichel after practice, still on the ice for an hour working his way through the motions. “When I did that,” he said, “I found results. That’s a good feeling.”
He finished the season strong, with a point in each of his last five games, and now the real work ahead of Year 2 has begun. The bitter taste of a sunk Sabres season in his mouth, Eichel has ramped up his training and diet regiment, working out near Boston with famed strength and conditioning coach Brian McDonough, who has helped sculpt more than 180 pro athletes in the NHL, NFL and AHL. Eichel has been back on the ice since June, and morning smoothies have been followed often by lean lunches and dinners of fish, brown rice and vegetables.
Leisure time will come. Eichel spent Fourth of July in Nantucket, the beach-lined island off Cape Cod, and had planned a fishing trip north of Massachusetts with his father, Bob. Yet Eichel knows he must be accountable for the load the Sabres will place on him when he returns to western New York, this time not with Moulson and family but in a newly finished three-storey townhouse, which he will share with Reinhart.
His rookie season is over. For Buffalo, a long-struggling franchise looking toward Eichel for relief, so, too, are his rookie expectations.