MONTREAL – Becoming the youngest player in Sabres history to reach 20 goals was a significant milestone for Jack Eichel this week. The tough part for him is that it didn’t happen months ago.
Expectations were high regarding Eichel’s rookie season, but they pale in comparison to the outlook he had for himself. He’s had to temper those beliefs.
“That’s one of the more important things you learn in a rookie season is you come from somewhere where you expect to score every game,” Eichel said Thursday before facing the Montreal Canadiens. “I think you expect yourself to score every game in this league and you want to score every game, but is that a reality? No.
“When you don’t and things don’t go your way, you have to realize it’s an 82-game season and you’re probably going to play the next night or the night after. It’s something I’ve tried to learn, put it behind me and move on, try to help my team in some other way.”
One way is by playing sound defensively. It’s a work in progress, according to his minus-15 rating and Toronto forward Nazem Kadri.
“He’s a good player,” Kadri said after playing against Eichel on Monday. “He has a hard time in his own end but definitely special with the puck.”
With No. 1 center Ryan O’Reilly out with injury, Eichel has had to step up in class. He’s playing shifts against more skilled players with varying results.
“It’s been a learning process for Jack, even going back as far as the world championships when I coached him for Team USA there,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said in Bell Centre. “His play away from the puck and his defensive responsibilities, that’s something he’s worked and developed at all year long. Talking to him about his game, that’s probably the biggest improvement this year has been playing on the defensive side of the puck, playing down low.
“There’s going to be a learning curve. There’s going to be some mistakes that he has made and he’s learning to play with.”
With no shot at the playoffs for the Sabres, the final weeks of the season are about learning lessons that can be applied next year. That message is being hammered into the young players.
“The biggest thing is trying to continue to build,” captain Brian Gionta said. “We’re a team that is trying to build toward the future. We’re a team that needs to learn. All this experience, everything coming down the stretch here, playing in these games, you can’t take them off. You have to keep building toward what you want. The way we play, the way we play in the system, the attention to detail, that’s what you want.
“You want them to be focused night in and night out and not take nights off. That’s part of it. Whether you’re playing a team that’s in a playoff spot or not, it’s coming prepared and not playing down to your competition. That’s how want to approach it, and for a young guy to learn that and be playing well down the stretch is a good start.”