Jack Eichel. Image by: Getty Images
Jack Eichel has 13 points during a 10-game point streak, and you have to wonder what kind of position the Sabres would be in if he didn't miss the first 21 games of the season.
It’s probably best not to think about it, but where would the Buffalo Sabres be today if both Jack Eichel and Evander Kane had not been injured to begin the season? As it stands now, the Sabres are only five points out of a playoff spot with 16 games to go. But with Kane missing 11 of the first 12 games and Eichel out for the first 21, Buffalo could have done much better this season.
On the positive side of the ledger, Eichel’s play has once again reaffirmed his phenom status and the lofty expectations that came to town with the second overall pick in 2015. Connor McDavid may win his first scoring title this season, but with 13 points during an ongoing ten-game streak, Eichel is demonstrating his own excellent firepower.
While it is highly likely that the Sabres miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season, the big uptick in competitiveness this year is great for young pros such as Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen, among others. The Sabres find themselves in a similar situation to their rivals up the highway, the Toronto Maple Leafs, where the games will be harder from here on out, but it’s the kind of hard pressure you want to get used to – because that’s the pressure winners like Chicago and Pittsburgh face every night. And to be right on the nose, Buffalo just got a lesson in winning from the Penguins when Pittsburgh came back from a 3-0 deficit to defeat the Sabres on Sunday.
So it’s going to be interesting to see how Eichel can perform from here on out, because he has already raised his points-per-game rate significantly from his rookie campaign, when he was at about .70. Right now, he's at .93.
The kid from North Chelmsford, Mass., is still getting murdered in the faceoff circle, but even the best struggled with that side of the game early on – it’s the veterans who know who to cheat the right way, after all. And possession hockey is definitely another aspect of his game to work on, as Eichel is middle-of-the-pack on the Sabres and Buffalo happens to rank 28th in the NHL when it comes to Corsi For percentage. But these are things that can be improved with time and the fact Eichel is just at the beginning of his NHL career is a boon for all involved. The ankle injury that cost him the first quarter of this campaign pushed back his development curve, so we're seeing good Eichel with the knowledge that great Eichel is around the corner. I wouldn't be surprised if the big pivot plays for Team USA at the World Championship this spring and I also wouldn't be surprised if Eichel really starts to dominate in 2017-18.
Another positive is that GM Tim Murray has a lot of leeway in improving his roster this summer. Buffalo has a good amount of cap space for next season and not a lot of players who need significant raises. The defense corps definitely needs an upgrade, but bolstering the back end could have a very positive domino effect: Robin Lehner has a top-10 save percentage among NHL goalies with more than 20 appearances, while facing the third-most shots in the league.
So the mercurial Swede appears to have confirmed the hypothesis of the starter's science project the Sabres were banking on. If Murray can have a good summer in the roster department, Eichel will have an even better cast surrounding him - hopefully one that can push the puck in the right direction and hold onto it longer. In that scenario, we'll really see the kid fly soon.