It became official on Wednesday, even if it was always just a matter of time: Jack Eichel is the captain of the Buffalo Sabres.
Eichel’s captaincy was, of course, high on the list of foregone conclusions. It's been known for years now that the vacant captaincy, last held by Brian Gionta during the 2016-17 season, was a role eventually to be filled by the Sabres' star center. Thus, Eichel's captaincy hardly constitutes earth-shattering hockey news. But the timing of the announcement, that Eichel has become captain now and at no time prior, is noteworthy. In fact, it's deserving of some praise.
Consider that when the Edmonton Oilers put the captaincy on Connor McDavid, Eichel’s draft counterpart and the lone player who went ahead of him during the 2015 selection process, it was assumed the Sabres would soon follow suit. They didn’t. When Eichel put pen to paper on a colossal eight-year, $80-million contract, some expected the ‘C’ to be stitched to his sweater. It wasn’t. Even throughout the summer and into the beginning of training camp, there was ample opportunity to name Eichel captain. But still they waited.
And that the Sabres held off until now, until the eve of the 2018-19 campaign and their home- and season-opener against the Boston Bruins, should be commended.
Rest assured, to have put the captaincy on Eichel any sooner would have been to put him in a position to fail. The Sabres, simply put, were nowhere near ready to succeed. Across the past three seasons, only the Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes have accumulated fewer points, and to make Eichel the captain of the Sabres during any of the three seasons prior would have been to put him at the helm of a sinking ship. No one would suggest he wouldn't have been prepared for the responsibility, mind you. But it wouldn’t have served him well to lead a basement-dwelling team. So, while other franchises have gone all-in in making their young stars leadership figures almost from the outset of their careers, Buffalo was content to slow-play the decision and wait for the right time. Make no mistake, now is that time.
Unlike years prior, when Eichel seemed like the uncrowned leader of the Sabres, Buffalo appears more prepared to make a real push for the post-season than in any of Eichel’s previous big-league campaigns. Despite offloading one of their top players, Ryan O’Reilly, to the St. Louis Blues in an early off-season blockbuster, the Sabres have added at all positions. The offense, and likely one of Eichel’s wings, has been shored up with the acquisition of Jeff Skinner and then supplemented with the arrival of Casey Mittelstadt and additions of Tage Thompson, Vladimir Sobokta and Patrik Berglund. The blueline was bolstered with the drafting of Rasmus Dahlin, the incredibly hyped first-overall pick who Buffalo hopes can be a transformative member of their ‘D’ corps. Even the crease, with the signing of Carter Hutton, has potential to be improved.
Of course, it’s Eichel who was and will continue to be tasked with becoming the centerpiece of a resurgence in Buffalo, though, which was made all the more clear by Wednesday’s announcement.
It'd be foolish to assert Eichel isn't ready. Battling through a second straight injury-shortened campaign, Eichel fell three points shy of posting point-per-game scoring numbers in 2017-18 and his 25 goals and 64 points were both career-best marks. He was an unstoppable force for the Sabres in the second half of the season despite missing more than a handful of games, too, producing 10 goals and 29 points in 29 contests down the stretch, highlighted by a monster five-assist against the eventual Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators. His on-ice underlying numbers spoke volumes about his play, as well. He was often tasked with the toughest competition, yet boasted a better relative possession numbers and a better relative goals for percentage than all but a select few teammates.
Better yet, though, in an era where we so often hear about establishing culture, Eichel seems the perfect fit for the captaincy at this point in his career. He was vocal about his displeasure at the lack of success Buffalo has seen during his tenure, even as early as the opening month of the previous campaign. And Eichel, young as he might be, can be the player who helps inspire that change in culture the Sabres seem to so desperately need. Naming Eichel the captain now allows him to be the face of this franchise as it turns over a new leaf. It gives him the potential to be the leader of a team on the rise, not one scratching and clawing to get out of the basement. And that, in turn, could give him the opportunity to have more than just failures in his first season carrying the weight of the ���C.'
Waiting patiently to name Eichel captain doesn’t come with any promises, true, and how the new-look Sabres fare this season is yet to be seen. But watching Eichel’s will to win, listening to him speak about the disappointment of the losses, should give Buffalo hope that he can spur on this team and lead them to greater heights. It has been his team from the moment he was drafted, but that has never been clearer than it is now. And because they were patient, because they gave Eichel the room to grow into the role, the Sabres stand to be better for it.