In this series we build the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres roster one by one leading up to the season opener on October 3.
6'2" 200 lbs.
22 yrs. old
Career Stats: 286 games | 101 goals | 158 assists | 259 points | -65
Not long after being hired by the Buffalo Sabres as their new head coach, Ralph Krueger jumped on a plane to Slovakia, host of the 2019 IIHF World Hockey Championships. Krueger flew over 4,000 miles to see and talk with two principle players of the Sabres who were competing in the tournament--Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart.
Of the encounter with Eichel, Krueger told TSN's Darren Dreger at the time, "it was a real natural conversation. We were both pleased at the end. We could feel the common purpose that drives me here to the job and Jack to his daily job with the Sabres."
Eichel's "daily job" with the Sabres became a little more complicated last season as he became the franchise's 16th full-time captain and he was entering the first year of an 8yr./$80 million contract, the richest in franchise history. Add in the trade of Ryan O'Reilly and there was no doubt heading into last season that this was Jack Eichel's team.
Exepetations were modest at best for the Sabres to start the season but soon were blown out of proportion as the team tied a franchise-record with a 10-game winning streak that propelled them to the top of the league. Eichel was at the core of that streak (1 goal, 10 assists) while leading all forwards with 19:40 minutes of ice-time per game and driving a line with left wing Jeff Skinner (10g, 1a) and Reinhart (2g, 7a.) However, it would/could not last and the team began to falter. Buffalo's downward spiral would worsen as the season went on and they ended up with a league-worst 16-33-8 record from the end of the streak until a merciful end to the season which included the firing of head coach Phil Housley.
"When things went bad I think guys were probably looking for answers," said Eichel to the gathered media at locker cleanout. "I think we were trying to find something, trying to grasp something that was going on earlier in the year (during the streak) and we couldn't quite find it again."
As a 21 yr. old, first-time captain, Eichel couldn't help his team find the answers and maybe there weren't a lot of answers to be found. Buffalo had one line that could score with regularity, the defense was anchored by an 18 yr. old and goaltending was suspect at best. The coaching staff offered up no answers either as their schemes faltered and failed and they were unable find anything to help stem the tide of losing or put together as much as a two-game winning streak from mid-December until the final two games when they ended a franchise-long stretch without back-to-back wins. As per ususal in situations like this, the head coach was fired.
For as much as Eichel took on with the captaincy and the contract, overall he had a real good season putting up 24 goals and 58 assists in 77 games. Those 82 points tied him for 23rd in the league and what's cool about that performance is that although one might consider it breakout campaign, iit largely went unnoticed as his elite talent and still allows for plenty of upside.
In addition to the points, it was good to see him play nearly a full season. After appearing in 81 games his rookie year, Eichel struggled with injuries that limited him to 61 and 67 games, respectively, the following seasons. Last year injuries cost him only three games with the other two missed games coming as a result of a suspension handed down by the league. Eichel took out his frustrations with another lost season when he hit Colorado's Carl Soderberg with a blow to the head in a March 9 contest against the Avalanche.
Eichel always makes his linemates better and he did so last season with Skinner becoming the first 40-goal scorer in Buffalo since Thomas Vanek in 2008-09 and Reinhart once again setting a career high with 65 points, a 15-point increase over the previous season. There's no reason to believe things will be different for whomever's on his line in 2019-20.
That said, his leadership will really need to shine. Buffalo has a tough road to hoe in the Eastern Conference this year as the quality and depth will make it extremely difficult for them to break their league-long eight-game playoff drought. The now 22 yr. old Eichel showed spurts of carrying the team, especially when guiding them during the winning streak, as a rookie captain but that waned as the season went along and the losing started to take it's toll. He was inconsistent at times during the final four months of the season and he needs to bring it every game, regardless of the situation. It's something that comes along with the territory of being the team captain and their on-ice leader and it's something that will always test the depth of his commitment to leading his team. It's also something he and Krueger discussed in Slovakia. "We really went a lot deeper than I expected on a first contact," the coach said in the Dreger interview. "It was good. We definitely spoke the most about hockey but also about life and leadership, which is very important from his perspective."
Eichel is the man in Buffalo. He knows it and that's why for the third year in a row, we begin building the opening night roster with him.
Building the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres roster:
C, Jack Eichel