A month ago, Jack Eichel represented the Sabres in New York for the NHL’s annual player media tour. In a 20-minute conversation, I asked him: What would you be doing right now if you weren’t playing hockey?
“I would still be in college, but I wouldn’t be at BU,” the 20-year-old said with a smile. “I wasn’t a bad student in high school, but I probably wasn’t smart enough to go to BU. I probably would have gone to a school out west in California, or the South. I always thought it would be cool to be in the CIA or Homeland Security. It’s obviously kind of scary, but if you watch enough shows about it, you get curious enough.”
The truth is Eichel never had to truly consider a life outside of hockey — he has been tabbed as an elite talent since he was a kid. Now Buffalo doesn’t have to consider a future without Eichel. On Tuesday, two days before the season opener, the Sabres officially made the No. 2 pick of the 2015 draft the face of their franchise, agreeing with Eichel on an NHL-maximum eight-year, $80 million contract.
This is a significant step for owner Terry Pegula, who bought the team in 2011. Pegula (who also owns the NFL’s Buffalo Bills) has made efforts to reinvigorate the fan base by renovating the arena and developing downtown. Consistent excitement on the ice has been more difficult. The Sabres’ playoff drought is at six seasons, and the team hit the refresh button this summer, firing both the GM (Tim Murray) and coach (Dan Bylsma) and hiring GM Jason Botterill and coach Phil Housley.
The chemistry between Eichel and Housley will be closely monitored.
Eichel told me this summer: “If coaches are hard on me, they’re hard on me. That’s fine. I also like my coaches to have a personality. I want them to be able to talk to me about things that aren’t about hockey. You come to the rink every day, and some days you’re in a good mood and some days you’re in a bad mood. I like coaches to be able to relate to me a little bit. I’ve had hard coaches, I’ve had easy coaches, and it doesn’t matter to me how they are as [far as] their personality. I just want to be able to know them outside the neutral-zone forecheck and the offensive zone.”
Eichel had a team-leading 57 points last season despite missing the first two months of the season with a sprained left ankle, and he did his part this summer to get ready for Year 3. He changed his workout routine, and began skating with Bruins stars Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron at the Warrior Ice Arena in Boston.
“[After] having to chase Marchand every day,” Eichel quipped, “hopefully I’ll do better in the D-zone and do better on that plus/minus.”
With the contract out of the way, Eichel will focus solely on his on-ice responsibility, which should include being more defensively responsible (his plus/minus in 2016-17 was minus-13). There’s a lot more the Sabres would like to see from Eichel from now until 2025-26, when this contract expires, starting with a playoff appearance.
Homeland Security can wait.