Eight weeks to go until the beginning of the 2015-16 National Hockey League season.
We continue on with our season expectations series on BLTD Sports, and this week we look into what to expect out of Buffalo Sabres rookie center, Jack Eichel.
Going into the 2014-15 season, Connor McDavid was the most talked about prospect that would be eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft. However, he had company throughout the year with Eichel close behind.
After a year in the United States National Developmental Program in the United States Hockey League, in which he posted 45 points (20 gaoals and 25 assists) in just 24 games, Eichel decided to take his talents back home and join the Boston University Terriers at the age of 17. Not only was he the youngest player on the Terriers squad, but he was one of the youngest players in all of college hockey.
In his first regular season game back on October 10, 2014, Eichel had two goals and added on two assists in the Terriers’ 8-1 thrashing of the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) Minutemen.
In Eichel’s first 10 games of the season, he scored seven goals, added 12 assists, and registered a total of 46 shots in that span. In the ninth game of the season against the Maine Black Bears, Eichel scored a highlight-reel overtime goal going coast-to-coast to give the Terriers a 7-1-1 record. It would be the first of three overtime goals Eichel would score on the season.
Eichel would go on a bit of a slump, but still ended up with eight goals, 19 assists, and put up 58 shots in his first 16 games before joining Team USA for the IIHF World Junior Championships in Canada.
As captain of the USA squad, Eichel got off to a stellar start in the tournament registering in the first three games for Team USA, Eichel scored a goal, added an assist, and had 14 shots for the red, white and blue. Eichel centered the top line for USA with Tyler Motte on his left and Alex Tuch on his right.
With the loss, Team USA went on to play Russia in the quarterfinals, where Team USA was eliminated with a 3-2 loss. Eichel, again, had an assist in the loss, but was not able to do enough to help the Americans beat the Russians in Canada.
In five games in the 2015 World Juniors, Eichel finished with a goal, three assists, was a minus-3, has three penalties, and registered 21 shots. Eichel was also 45.21-percent on his faceoffs in the five games. Not bad stats, however not good enough.
Eichel would return to Boston University with a vengeance, as he would score seven goals and add six assists in seven games back with the Terriers.
Eichel would continue to be red hot for the Terriers, and finished his regular season with 18 goals, 37 assists, and averaged over 3.9 shots a game in 32 games.
In addition to his impressive season totals, Eichel and the Terriers would win the annual Beanpot Tournament, beating Harvard in double overtime, and then beating Northeastern in the finals.
The Terriers entered the Hockey East Tournament as the favorites to win Hockey East, and punch its ticket to the NCAA Frozen Four Tournament. Boston University took care of Merrimack in the quarterfinals winning the best of three set in two games, then advancing to the finals with a 4-1 win over New Hampshire. In the Hockey East Finals, the Terriers would defeat the University of Massachusetts (Lowell) Riverhawks 5-3 to capture the crown, and head to the NCAA Tournament as the number three seed. Eichel would end up with six goals, five assists, and averaged nearly six shots a game in the tournament. Eichel was also named the Hockey East Tournament Most Valuable Player.
From there, it was on to the NCAA Frozen Four Tournament, where Eichel would continue to be a factor in BU’s road to the finals.
In the first game of the Northeast Regional, Eichel and the Terriers nearly escaped a lose against 2013 NCAA Champions, Yale. It was Eichel who took a shot from the point, in which Danny O’Regan put home the rebound to left the Terriers over the Bulldogs 3-2.
The Terriers would go on to beat Minnesota-Duluth to earn a berth in the Frozen Four in the home confines of the TD Garden in Boston.
In the semifinals, the Terriers would face the Fighting Sioux of the University of North Dakota. Eichel would open the scoring against the second ranked team in the country, add an assist, and later put home the empty net goal to put BU into the finals to face the Providence Friars.
In the final game, Eichel had an assist on a Danny O’Regan first period goal to put BU ahead 2-1. From there, the Terriers would collapse and the third period and lose the NCAA Championship game 4-3. Eichel was named to the NCAA Tournament’s All-Tournament Team for his play.
Eichel would finish his freshman year at Boston University, with 26 goals and 45 assists in 40 games. Eichel averaged 1.77 points per game, and also averaged 4.15 shots per game with the Terriers.
Eichel was college hockey’s leading scorer, was part of Hockey East’s All-Rookie Team, was a First-Team All-Star in Hockey East, and was Hockey East’s Player of the Year.
On top of the other accolades, Eichel earned himself the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s most valuable player as a freshman. The only other player to win the Hobey Baker Award as a freshman was Paul Kariya back in 1993.
Just as Eichel’s season had ended in Boston, he was not done playing hockey.
Team USA was about to head over to the Czech Republic for the IIHF World Championships, and Eichel was invited to play for the team. Eichel would accept his invitation, and would be one of the most talked about players in the tournament.
Throughout the course of the tournament, Eichel would center the fourth line with New York Islanders forward Brock Nelson and Los Angeles Kings forward Trevor Lewis. Eichel’s line would be the top scoring line for Team USA, as the trio scored a combined total of 26 points.
As for Eichel, he finished the tournament with two goals and five assists in all 10 games the United States played. Eichel was also a plus-2 in the tournament, averaged 16:35 of total ice-time, averaged 21.3 shifts per game, and averaged 47-seconds per shift. Eichel was also third on the USA squad with 19 shots on goal throughout the tournament.
Eichel’s first game of note was in game three against the Russians with powerhouse players like Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and company. Eichel registered an assist in the 4-2 Team USA win, however what was most impressive was his matchup against a top player like Malkin. Eichel was physically able to matchup with Malkin, especially in the face-off circle. Eichel was matched against Malkin in some important draws, especially in the offensive zone, and Eichel was on the upper-hand.
Another game of note for Eichel was his performance against Slovakia in the final game of preliminary action. Eichel had an assist early in action, but helped the United States to win Group B of the tournament with an overtime goal with less than 30-seconds left in action.
Eichel and the United States would end up losing in the semifinals to Team Russia, but would eventually capture the bronze medal against the host nation, Czech Republic.
Throughout the tournament, people questioned whether Eichel would be able to keep up to the pace of players who have been playing professional hockey for man years. With games against players like Malkin, Tomas Plekanec of the Montréal Canadiens, and Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings, Eichel proved to everyone that he is well capable of playing professional-level hockey at a high intensity, competitive level.
The next step for Eichel was coming to Buffalo for the NHL Combine at the HARBORCENTER. Not only was Eichel welcomed to Buffalo with open arms, knowing that he was 99.9-percent sure of being a Sabre, but he was one of the best prospects in every test thrown at him. He was the best player in the VO2 training, which shows a player’s endurance, and finished in the top 10 of all seven fitness test categories.
When comparing Eichel with top-rated prospect, McDavid, Eichel tested better that McDavid in five of the seven fitness tests. Eichel had a great vertical jump and standing long jump, was physically stronger than McDavid, and had a better long-term endurance than McDavid.
Less than a month later, Sabres general manager Tim Murray finally was able to announce that Jack Eichel was a Buffalo Sabre. It was the highlight of the NHL Draft for the Sabres, along with the acquisitions of goalie Robin Lehner from the Ottawa Senators and also forward Ryan O’Reilly from the Colorado Avalanche.
Just a few days later, on the first day of NHL Free Agency, Eichel made his decision to turn pro and signed his 3-year, entry-level contract with the Sabres.
The next week, Eichel would take part in Buffalo’s annual development camp at the First Niagara Center. The fans of Buffalo flocked to the First Niagara Center to catch a glimpse at the future face of the franchise, and its first since Pat LaFontaine in the 1990’s.
At the development camp’s Blue and Gold Scrimmage, over 17,000 fans filled Buffalo’s home arena to see Eichel in action against his future teammate, Sam Reinhart. While Reinhart shined more than Eichel, fans were still impressed with the 18-year old’s skill and on-ice abilities.
Eichel was also impressive at the 3-on-3 tournament on the last day of camp. Eichel and his team were close to winning the tournament, but fell in the semifinals.
So what is it exactly that makes Eichel a threat when he is on the ice?
Eichel is a powerful, strong skater that is hard to contain in all areas on the ice. Eichel is physically hard to contain, standing at near 6′ 3″ and 196-pounds, and is a force when he has the puck. Eichel uses his power to accelerate his speed on the rush, and his speed can be deceptive to defenders who are not on-guard.
Eichel’s skill set is exceptional as well. Eichel has a great shot, which was seen in Boston University with Eichel playing the point on the powerplay. He also has some soft hands which makes him crafty with the puck, but yet has a strong release. Eichel’s vision is phenomenal, as he has a knack for finding open players and making plays for his teammates around him.
Another asset to Eichel’s game is his ability to control the pace of play in the offensive zone. Eichel can make a quick rush down the ice with his speed, and can make some quick puck movements to create chances for his line-mates. But Eichel has a unique ability to slow the pace down and make himself a dangerous threat, especially on the powerplay. Eichel can almost bring the pace of play to a snail’s pace, which can leave some players flat-footed and let’s Eichel make the best play.
If Eichel were in any other draft besides the 2015 NHL Draft with a player like Connor McDavid, Eichel would have gone at the top of the draft.
Eichel has been deemed as a generational, franchise-changing player, and will have a long-term effect on the Sabres’ future.
But what could we see Eichel do in his first year with the Sabres?
Tim Murray went out and acquired O’Reilly at the draft to be the top-line center right now, but that does not mean O’Reilly will stay at center. O’Reilly was versatile in his time with the Avalanche, being able to transition from wing to center when need be and vise versa.
But to start the 2015-16 campaign, Eichel will not be Buffalo’s top-line center. Heck, he may not even be the second-line center on this roster right now. But the Sabres are in no rush to get Eichel to the top-line role.
Eichel will most likely start the 18-year old as the third-line center with someone like newly acquired Jamie McGinn on his left side and Sabres captain Brian Gionta on his right. Both players are seasoned veterans who can help a kid like Eichel grow into a professional hockey player. Plus, both have proven they can make some nice plays with the puck with some highly skilled players on their line.
As the season goes on, you may see Eichel jump up to the second line, and maybe even the first line if injuries riddle the Sabres roster. But to start the season, let Eichel get accustomed to the pace and play of the NHL, and why not have him play with a guy like Gionta?
With Eichel being on the third line, and maybe seeing some time on the second line, Eichel could score anywhere between 15-20 goals this season. Eichel could also have anywhere between 25-35 assists in his rookie season in Buffalo. For a rookie, those are some decent stats.
If you look back in time at some of the most recent top picks that were centers in the NHL Draft, they, combined, averaged near 54 points in their rookie season. Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon (2013) had the most points in his rookie year with 63, followed by New York Islanders’ John Tavares (2009) with 54, then Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) with 52, and finally Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steven Stamkos (2008) with 46. Stamkos and Tavares are now franchise players with their, Nugent-Hopkins has struggled a bit with injuries, and MacKinnon is about to enter his third NHL season with Colorado.
If Eichel can put up anywhere between 50 and 60 points, it would be a successful rookie season.
Eichel will, most likely, be the quickest to adjust to the NHL style of play compared to McDavid, but will Eichel be the better rookie? Tough to say, but Eichel and McDavid will both be heavily watched, and compared to all season. It is also fair to say that both Eichel and McDavid will both be up for the Calder Trophy for the NHL’s Rookie of the Year.
Any way you look at it, Eichel is the player the Sabres and the City of Buffalo has been waiting for for years. Eichel will start slow, but for years to come, he will be the face of the Sabres franchise.
The Sabres are on the rise after a long and painful rebuild, and it all begins with Jack Eichel.
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