All eyes are on Buffalo Sabres star rookie Jack Eichel.
The No. 2 pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft is well aware of the expectations. And he doesn’t have a problem with it.
“Obviously, there’s pressure whenever there’s expectations, but I think so far I’ve done a good job of handling it and haven’t really let it bother me,” Eichel said. “I really haven’t accomplished anything yet. I’m just another guy on the Sabres right now. I’m just trying to become a better player and help us win games.”
Buffalo finished with the NHL’s worst record last season and drafted Eichel, the promising forward from Chelmsford, Mass., to help turn around the Sabres and serve as a franchise cornerstone for years to come. Sabres’ coach Dan Bylsma, the U.S. men’s coach at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games, has experience nurturing burgeoning young superstars, similar to the way he helped Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin while coaching in Pittsburgh.
“It’s interesting, when Jack touches the puck, it’s different than if any other player touches it,” Bylsma said. “The fans are anticipating something. It’s a little bit reminiscent of the expectations you have when Sidney Crosby touches the puck.
“He’s a dynamic player, and I think there’s an excitement about him, what he’s bringing to the game and what he’s bringing to our team.”
The newly turned 19-year-old Eichel is having little trouble adjusting to the NHL game. He leads the team with five goals and is tied for second with seven points through the first 14 games. Although it’s not the start Eichel initially hoped for, he’s adapting.
“I don’t have the points I would like to show for it, but I think I’ve done a lot of good things,” Eichel said. “I’m working on things I need to do to help me become the player that I want to be. The coaching staff and guys around help a lot. I’m just trying to get better and work on things I know will make me a better player.”
Sabres’ captain Brian Gionta is a Rochester, N.Y., native, who played for Team USA in the 2006 Winter Games. He’s witnessed a lot in 13 NHL seasons, and he’s impressed with what he sees from Eichel.
“His composure, his skill set, already at a young age … he just turned 19 and what he can do with the puck in this league is pretty special,” Gionta said. “It’s not easy. Things happen quick and what he can do, he’s able to slow the game down and control the puck against guys that have been around for a long time.”
Eichel is just getting started.
The former Boston University star won last year’s Hobey Baker Memorial Award as the top player in college hockey, becoming the second freshman to claim the honor. Eichel, who led the nation in points, assists and plus-minus, was named a First-Team All-American, Hockey East Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year in college.
He’s driven by his success.
“It’s another day and another challenge for him,” Bylsma said. “I know he’s real critical of himself, and when he doesn’t do well or misses an opportunity, he carries it with him, probably longer than he should.”
Eichel was part of the U.S. National Team Development Program for two seasons. He has the fourth-highest point total in NTDP history and was named to the United States Hockey League’s Second All-Star team.
As a 15-year-old, Eichel represented the U.S. at the 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games, and he took part in several international tournaments as part of the NTDP, notably helping Team USA take gold at the 2014 IIHF Under-18 Men’s World Championships. Eichel also competed as the U.S. team’s youngest player at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championships and represented Team USA again at the tournament the following year.
“I always love representing my country,” Eichel said. “I know whenever I get the opportunity, I’m more than happy to do it.”
Eichel was thrown into the fire as an 18-year-old in May when he competed with Team USA at the 2015 IIHF Men’s World Championships. He was the first draft-eligible player to compete in the event for Team USA since Phil Housley more than 20 years ago.
Eichel scored two goals, including a game-winner during the group stage against Slovakia, and squared off against established NHL stars such as Malkin en route to helping Team USA win a bronze medal.
“It was a lot of fun and great experience with a great group of guys,” Eichel said. “I was able to learn a lot about myself as a player and work on things during the summer before making the jump to the NHL.”
The transition has been smooth thus far for Eichel and figures to only get better from here.
“I’m staying confident in my abilities,” Eichel said. “That’s what has gotten me to where I am, and I think that’s the biggest thing. Obviously, the guys around me have made me feel comfortable and allowed me to play my game.
“I’m just enjoying myself. This is what I wanted to do my whole life, so I’m happy to be doing it.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.