There are all kinds of fresh faces around the Buffalo Sabres’ lineup and even behind the bench. Optimism is flowing about as much as it can be for a team coming off back-to-back visits to the netherworld of 30th place in the NHL standings.
After months of hype, the big unveiling is here. It’s the season opener Thursday night in First Niagara Center against the Ottawa Senators. And there’s no way for the team to downplay it: This one is all about Jack Eichel.
The likeness of the No. 2 overall pick is one of four giant posters erected this week in the FNC atrium with its “Next Chapter” marketing slogan plastered on it.
Connor McDavid and Eichel will be forever linked by going 1-2 in the 2015 draft and this is their night, with Eichel skating in Buffalo and McDavid officially suiting up for the Edmonton Oilers for the first time in their game at St. Louis.
“You don’t focus on that too much anymore but it was all part of the experience to get here,” Eichel said after practice Wednesday on the eve of Buffalo’s 45th NHL opener. “There were great times but they’re over with now and it’s time to play hockey.”
Eichel said he expects plenty of electricity in a building that’s been mostly devoid of any juice for several years.
“I think it will be pretty wild,” he said. “I know Buffalo has been looking forward to this one and so have we. It’s going to be a great experience.”
New coach Dan Bylsma will direct a lineup with plenty of new big-ticket items. Up front, there’s the star power of Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane as well as the steady veteran contributions expected from the likes of Jamie McGinn and David Legwand. Free agent signee Cody Franson is on defense. Trade acquisition Robin Lehner is the new starting goalie.
Bylsma, of course, used to coach Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. He knows the kind of attention Eichel is embarking upon.
“I hope he doesn’t feel it. I hope he’s kind of ignorant to all the talk,” Bylsma said. “Even though it gets asked every day and is out there, it’s really outside our sphere and his sphere and he doesn’t really need to worry about it. His comparisons to Connor McDavid, his comparisons to his daily activity if he has a good game, bad game, good shift or bad shift. It’s going to be analyzed but it’s outside him and outside our group.”
Bylsma talked to Eichel on Wednesday, officially informing him he had made the roster – as if that was ever in doubt – and confirming that Eichel would finally be switching to No. 15 from the 41 sweater he’s worn through camp and exhibition play.
“It went fine. We talked a lot about training camp,” Eichel said of the conversation. “I don’t really think I want to ease into the season. No one wants to ease into anything. I want to get out there and make an impression, make an impact right away. From my first shift, I want to do something positive to help this team win. Whatever that is. They want me to make an impact and I’m going to do my best to do that.”
There’s precedence with this franchise for Eichel’s first NHL shift to be one for history. Remember how Danny Gare (18 seconds in 1974) and Alexander Mogilny (20 seconds in 1989) rocked Memorial Auditorium with goals from the opening faceoff of their first games? Imagine if something like that happened in this one.
“I still get chills when I think of my first game,” said Sabres forward Tyler Ennis, recalling his 2009 debut in Philadelphia. “Hopefully it would be nice if he could get the little bonus of putting one in during his first game.”
“My first shift I missed a breakaway pass because I was so nervous and I would have been gone,” a smiling Kane said of his 2009 debut for Atlanta against Tampa Bay. “I got my first point out of the way that game and scored in my second game. You’re nervous, as much as you say you’re not. It’s different than preseason. It’s full NHL rosters on the other side but he’s played in quite a few big games and can draw from all that experience like I did.”
It’s already been a busy week for Eichel, aside from “making the team” Wednesday and finally making his NHL debut on Thursday. Just look at what he was up to on Tuesday alone.
Eichel’s docket that day: After practice, the Sabres revealed his favorite egg-and-guacamole-topped cheeseburger that will be selling in the arena called the “Eike Daddy.” Eichel then joined teammates visiting children at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Then it was on to his first major autograph signing, at Dave & Adam’s Card World in Williamsville. Several hundred people lined up for autographs and pictures.
“It was quite an experience,” Eichel said of the signing. “So many people came out to see me and that was really nice. It speaks volumes of the fans here.”
Eichel’s linemates for the opener could be in flux. Captain Brian Gionta did not practice Wednesday after developing a lower-body injury in Tuesday’s practice and Bylsma said he’s day to day. Eichel was centering Kane and Sam Reinhart in Wednesday’s practice.
Kane, making his Buffalo debut after last year’s trade from Winnipeg, has been duly impressed.
“I had never seen him play live until I got to camp here,” Kane said. “You hear about his skating and shot, the way he moves the puck. Now that you play with him, his skating is what drives him. He obviously has a big shot and great vision but it’s when he’s skating that he’s at his best. We saw that with the breakaway in the Toronto game where he got a step and just pulled away to score.
“I think he has all the tools to make an impact this year. There will obviously be ups and downs. It doesn’t matter how good you are or what the expectations are. There will be periods of time things don’t go your way and you can get frustrated. It can be tough as a young guy but there are guys in here who will help him through that.”
Eichel is expecting several friends and family members at the opener. His father will attend all three games on the opening homestand and then travel to Florida for the team’s two games next week. Bob Eichel, in fact, will be celebrating his 55th birthday Thursday.
“He’s dreamed his whole life of watching me play professional hockey,” Eichel said. “It’s exciting to share this moment with him. He’s my best friend in the world. That’s a special way to celebrate your birthday.”
“He’s so impressive,” Ennis said. “Being from Edmonton, I hear a lot about McDavid – and I have to keep telling people back home how good Eichel is.”