Is there better evidence as to just how much Jack Eichel means to the Sabres than the Boston game on Saturday night. Buffalo was in trouble early in the game and struggled through the first period before the Bruins steamrolled them through most of the second period. Although the B's only had a 2-0 lead, they spent much of the third period playing the game in preseason-mode as opposed to the playoff-like fury they unleashed on the Sabres the prior two periods. Were it not for goaltender Linus Ullmark, this game would have been a laugher.
Eichel was signed to an 8yr./$80 million contract extension in October, 2017 despite not playing to his superstar potential on a regular basis. On many occasions we'd seen his remarkable skating, stickwork and scoring ability fueled by a deep desire to win, but in comparison to the other young superstars in and around his class, we hadn't seen it from Eichel for a full season. Had he not come out and dominated the way he has this year, the injuries and team dysfunction he dealt with his first three seasons would have added up to nothing more than empty excuses. What we've seen this year is full on-Eichel as he roared to a 100-point pace on a team that looked destined for it's first playoff appearance in seven seasons.
Then an injury hit which sidelined him for two games.
The Sabres managed to gut-out a solid win vs. the Florida Panthers in their first game without Captain Jack but looked like a bottom-five team in a meaningful game vs. an Atlantic division rival on the road with third place in the division at stake. It was a mini playoff game and they failed miserably when it mattered.
That said, reports from the rink have Eichel back at practice today with stick in hand and working in on the first powerplay unit while getting some work on a defensive pair. Nothing should be read into this save that a return to the ice is imminent whether it be tomorrow vs. the New Jersey Devils or Friday at Carolina against the Hurricanes.
However, regardless of when he returns, bench boss Phil Housley needs to shake up his forward lines.
Housley put Eichel and left wing Jeff Skinner together back in October and the duo has been dynamic. He eventually moved Sam Reinhart on their right wing and the trio has carried the scoring weight of the team which is a good thing, but secondary scoring vanished in the process. It's something that needs to be addressed and the only way to do so would be to shake up the line combos.
The simplest way to do that would be do move Eichel off of that line and insert Casey Mittelstadt there. Although it may be a case of moving a player into a top position without him having earned it, Mittelstadt was moved between Skinner and Reinhart against Boston out of necessity and he fared well. The 2017 eighth-overall pick has struggled this season while adapting to a full-time NHL gig at the age of 20, but he has one of the best skill packages on the team and some games between two of Buffalo's top scorers might just be what Mittelstadt needs to boost his confidence and release those skills on a consistent basis.
As for Eichel, it might not be a bad idea to have him center a player who looks as if he's on the verge of a breakout.
Housley moved Tage Thompson to right wing the last two games and the 21 yr. old has responded very well. Thompson has deft stickwork for a 6'5" player and a shot that's downright impressive but has had trouble finding adequate open ice. Eichel's the type of player that can create that for him and also has speed and on-ice awareness to play off of a player like Thompson whose peripheral vision is lacking somewhat.
The pickin's are slim on the left side of that line but recent call-up C.J. Smith, should he remain with the team, has the tools to roll with those two. In the preseason it was mentioned here that Conor Sheary, who rode shotgun with Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh for a stint, might be a good winger for Eichel but that didn't work out. Smith has the speed and hockey IQ, plus an underrated shot and a 200’ game, to at least hang with those two even though he's rookie.
Regardless of how those, or any other combos might work out, Housley needs to shake things up in the forward ranks. For too long the top line did all the heavy lifting and it was fine until they started to falter. It’s time for a change.
Of note: Reinhart was not on the ice today and according to reports from Housley's post-practice presser. He was said to be “feeling under the weather.”