Jack Eichel’s pre-game routine is already down pat. He goes to the same restaurant every time and always with veteran center David Legwand. Usually captain Josh Gorges is there and often other teammates, too. They shoot the breeze, load up on the good kind of calories and then prepare for the night’s festivities at First Niagara Center.
When the game is finished, he heads back to Matt Moulson’s house, where Eichel has been living with the experienced left winger and his family. Laundry and cooking are taken care of, so for the most part, Eichel can just focus on hockey. And with 13 points in his past 15 games, it’s working.
As the second overall pick in the 2015 draft, Eichel came to Buffalo surrounded by tremendous hype. The year prior, he became the first freshman since Paul Kariya to win college hockey’s prestigious Hobey Baker Award as player of the year. Eichel led Boston University to a storybook season as the Terriers won the Beanpot, the Hockey East regular season crown and playoff tournament, and appeared in the Frozen Four final. Only a fluke, momentum-changing goal denied the squad a national championship – won by Providence College instead.
And with the Sabres finishing dead-last in the standings, all eyes had been on Eichel and fellow draft phenom Connor McDavid for most of the year, particularly in the decrepit second half. Eichel’s arrival in Buffalo was important, you see. Fortunately, he got comfortable quick and confidence followed.
“I found it pretty early,” Eichel said. “I had a good pre-season and that helped me. I had confidence coming into this level and in the past 15 or 20 games, I’ve taken the next step and started to make plays.”
Eichel scored in his NHL debut – a 3-1 loss to Ottawa that happened to fall on his dad’s birthday – but points were hard to come by at first. He had three in his first 10 games, but the powerful center wasn’t worried then and he certainly doesn’t have concerns now that he’s dotting the scoresheet more often.
“I’m getting bounces and puck luck now, plus I’m on the top power play unit,” he said. “I’m bearing down on the net more.”
Linemates help as well. Before a recent injury, Zemgus Girgensons was flanking Eichel on the left, creating space for the line, while another rising rookie, Sam Reinhart, was using his smarts to contribute. Now Moulson has taken over for Girgensons, so perhaps Eichel can repay his hospitality with some sweet dishes near yawning cages.
“The Moulsons do so much for me,” Eichel said. “I could never repay them. Having a stable home environment, not worrying about meals and laundry…it made the adjustment so much easier.”
Eichel makes sure to chip in with dishwashing and while the Moulsons haven’t asked him to babysit their two young children yet, but the new “kid” in the house is pretty good at keeping them entertained. When he’s not at his favorite pre-game spot, Eichel has been exploring Buffalo to the fullest and has really liked what he has seen.
“There are so many good places to eat in Buffalo, I don’t think people realize it,” he said. “And people really take care of you here; they love their team.”
With all that going on for him, it’s no wonder Eichel has been producing. And with the Sabres likely adding another high draft pick this summer to a roster already featuring Eichel, Reinhart and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, the future is only going to get rosier in Western New York.