Jack Eichel (Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)
For Sabres fans, it must have seemed like an awfully long summer. But the countdown is on and soon the franchise's elite prospect will be playing real games for the NHL squad and showing off the reasons he went second overall in the draft.
The latter half of summer seems to drag on forever in the hockey world. Sure, you'll have the occasional event pop up, but free agency has long lost its luster, no big trades are happening and in general, it's a quiet time.
So if you're a Buffalo Sabres fan, take solace in the fact that the season is almost here. And with it comes rookie center Jack Eichel, the type of prospect that can change a franchise's fortunes.
“It’s starting to get real," Eichel said. "I have to earn my spot on the Sabres, earn everything I get in the next month and a half. I’m going to go in with an open mind and try to be positive. It’s an exciting time for me to finally get this all going.”
Eichel was in Toronto as part of the NHLPA's Rookie Showcase, an annual event held in conjunction with Upper Deck, the card company that uses the opportunity to snap photos of the best and brightest coming to the NHL. Connor McDavid was there of course, as was another very familiar face for Eichel – Carolina Hurricanes prospect Noah Hanifin.
Hanifin and Eichel trained together all summer long. It was Eichel's first tour of duty with trainer Brian McDonough and the already-sturdy teen was happy with the results. Eichel gained eight to 10 pounds this summer and mixed up his routine by adding boxing into his training. Getting ready for the pro lifestyle was also an important step.
"I was a lot more conscious this summer about what I ate, how many calories I got every day," he said. "Just trying to do the right things.”
Getting settled in Buffalo is going to be a little easier now, too: Eichel confirmed that he will be living with veteran left winger Matt Moulson and his family this season. Along with being an experienced NHLer and alternate captain with the Sabres, Moulson is also good friends with John Tavares – a player who went through a similar threshing machine of hype when he came into the league.
“The opportunity presented itself and it seemed like a good one," Eichel said. "Matt’s a great guy and he has a great family.”
Whatever makes Eichel comfortable should be welcomed by Sabres fans, because the 18-year-old has the chance to make an immediate impact on the squad. Jake Walman, the St. Louis Blues prospect, faced Eichel numerous times last year when he was at Providence College and Eichel was starring for Boston University. As a defenseman, he was acutely aware of the north-south pivot's deadliness.
“He’s so shifty," Walman said. "If one guy takes him eye off him, that could be it. You have to bare down and it’s really a mental game after that.”
Despite Buffalo's pitiful on-ice results in 2014-15, there is natural hope in the upcoming season's incarnation. Veteran center Ryan O'Reilly, brought in via trade from Colorado, provides instant insulation for Eichel down the middle and can take on tough minutes. Evander Kane is now healthy, so he'll make his Sabres debut, while Robin Lehner is the new No. 1 goalie.
Then there's Dan Bylsma, who will take over behind the bench and already has experience with Eichel thanks to Team USA's World Championship squad (which earned a surprise bronze with a youth-laden lineup). That foundation will also put the rookie at ease, since he knows what to expect.
“He wants to see me compete every time I’m on the ice and put my best foot forward," Eichel said. "That’s all you can do.”
And if that's what Eichel does, he'll make a great impact right away in Buffalo. The summer can't end fast enough…