The Buffalo Sabres’ best player should be among the league’s best when it is all said and done.
To say that the 2016-17 didn’t go as planned for Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres is the king of understatements.
Eichel’s high-ankle sprain kept him out of the first 21 games, and the Sabres never recovered, en route to a disappointing 78-point (33-37-12) campaign.
It’s not that Eichel was a bad player on the ice once he returned on November 29; far from it, as he managed to put up a 24-33-57 stat line in just 61 games, good for an average of 0.934 points per game. (Best not mention that to Jack, though, as he finished 0.005 out of the NHL’s top-10 in points, costing him a mere $2 million in bonus money!)
Still, as good as Eichel was, he clearly was not happy with the inconsistent play both he and his team demonstrated last season. The good news is that the Buffalo Sabres franchise finally hired a general manager (Jason Botterill) and head coach (Phil Housley) who have proven they are good at their jobs – sorry, GMTM fans! And with a revamped roster that should be stronger on both ends of the ice, there has never been a better time for Eichel to show the world just how good a player he can be.
Now the big question, besides “Can Eichel stay healthy?”, is “Can Jack Eichel establish himself as an elite* player in the NHL?”
*Some “experts” are projecting that Eichel could hit the 90-point plateau next season, but given the fact that only seven players managed to exceed 80 points last season, and only 19 hit 70, let’s consider anything over 70 points to qualify as “elite.”
Jack His The Skill; Does He Have The Will?
The fact that Eichel finished last season with the league’s 11th-highest Pts/Gm average sure lends weight to the argument that Eichel is on the cusp of becoming one of the NHL’s elite scorers. When he is healthy and committed, Eichel can score, and if his three points in his first game of preseason action are any indication, Eichel sure as hell appears to be locked-and-loaded as we approach opening night.
The biggest problem we have seen when it comes to Eichel so far, however, centers around his competitive nature. If the Sabres are playing well and are putting themselves in a position to win, Eichel is a force of nature. However, losing appears to take a toll on him, resulting in some lethargic efforts that dent his reputation. It is widely believed that Eichel could have finished last season among the top-10 in Pts/Gm. had he not taken his foot off the gas during Buffalo’s final two weeks.
Meanwhile, one need only look at Eichel’s plus/minus from last season to realize that Eichel has a lot of work to do if he wants to earn a spot among the NHL’s best two-way players:
That’s right: every single player in that chart finished 2016-17 on the positive end EXCEPT Eichel, who had the 78th worst +/- in the entire league last year. Scoring highlight-reel goals doesn’t matter if you finish the year having been on the ice for more goals by the opposition. It is easy to blame Eichel’s sulky attitude following losses and bad performances on his youth and competitive nature. . . but if he truly hates losing, Eichel needs to channel that hatred into superhuman efforts on both ends of the ice.
The good news? Eichel has two losing seasons worth of motivation and a great developer of young talent in Housley to help him grow as a player. It’s a perfect storm that hopefully will bring out the complete player in Buffalo’s future captain.
The HERO Chart
Love them or hate them, advanced statistics provide one way to measure how well a player such as Eichel stacks up to the rest of the competition. HERO charts (courtesy of Own The Puck) are a great way to compare how well players perform in specific areas – and they’re just so darn cool to look at!
So let’s use the past to help predict the future by looking at a few!
The first HERO chart compares Eichel’s career performance to date to that of the average 1st line center:
Next, we compare Eichel to the performance of the average 2nd line center:
Clearly, Eichel compares favorably to the average 2nd line center in the NHL. Offensively, he is not that far off of the pace of what we would expect from a 1st line player, but when it comes to the defensive zone (shot suppression), Eichel is actually performing at the level of a 5th line center. (No, that statistic doesn’t exist. That is how poorly Eichel performs in this category.) This just reinforces the point that if Eichel wants to stop being on a losing team, he certainly could help the Sabres’ cause by learning how to play some defense. If Housley cannot teach him, it is possible that no one can.
Finally, just to fuel the McDavid vs. Eichel debate, here is a HERO chart that directly compares the two players based on their first two seasons in the NHL:
Yeah, that’s depressing. Who would have thought that, two years after being taken 2nd in the 2015 NHL Draft, Eichel would only compare favorably to McDavid in terms of ice time? Sabres fans need to hope that Eichel’s development was delayed by the coaching style of Dan Bylsma – a plausible scenario – and that Housley and company can unlock Jack’s full potential.
Should he remain healthy, Eichel could conceivably come close to hitting the 80 point mark in 2017-18. Our projection, however, has him fall just short due to the fact that Eichel has not proven that he can maintain a 1 point per game pace for an entire season. There are still too many holes in his game, and too much sulkiness in Eichel’s demeanor, to envision him performing at the level of a 1st line center the entire season. Even so, the Buffalo Sabres appear to finally have a roster and coaching staff that can maximize Eichel’s performance on the ice, so 2017-18 should easily be Eichel’s best season to date.
We love to hear from you, Sabres fans! Chime in below on how well you think Captain Jack will fare this season!