It’s time for Jack Eichel to shut it down.
After a whirlwind 12 months that included playing for a college championship, winning the Hobey Baker Award, representing the United States at the world championships, sharing the spotlight with Connor McDavid during the NHL Draft process, headlining the Sabres’ development camp and completing an 81-game rookie season, Eichel is putting the skates away for a while.
That means he won’t play for USA Hockey at next month’s world championships.
“I think it’s time for me to take a little break and unwind a little bit here, kind of take a deep breath for the first time in a while,” Eichel said Sunday as the Sabres wrapped up the season with individual meetings. “It’s important mentally, physically, emotionally to take some time, be with your family, collect yourself, put the hockey bag away, stay out of the gym. Just relax a little bit, rejuvenate your mind, rejuvenate your body and prepare for your offseason training the right way where you can get the maximum results to help you come back next season feeling better than ever and hopefully take that next step.”
Eichel was one of the United States’ stars at last year’s world championships. Buffalo teammate Ryan O’Reilly helped Canada win the gold medal, and he’s going for a repeat. While O’Reilly is focused on the worlds, he knows a good showing can put him in consideration for Canada’s World Cup team in the fall.
“You want to win again,” he said. “You want to prove you’re the best country and go from there. For myself, obviously, that has crossed my mind if I can play well there and give myself a better chance to play on the World Cup team, it’d be great.”
Zemgus Girgensons will play for Latvia in the worlds, which begin May 6 in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. Rasmus Ristolainen will not play for Finland because the restricted free agent does not have a contract. USA Hockey has contacted Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe and forward Hudson Fasching about playing.
Captain Brian Gionta is 76 games shy of 1,000 in the NHL, and that milestone could come next season in the final year of his three-year, $12.75-million deal. Gionta turned 37 in January but made it clear he’s not planning to make next year a swan song.
Gionta is from the Rochester suburb of Greece, and the prevailing thought was the deal was sort of a coming-home contract to end his career. Asked Sunday to confirm if he would play in the final season of his deal, Gionta responded, “For sure, and hopefully for a few more. I feel great. I still feel good out there. I feel like I can contribute to the team and want to keep playing.”
Gionta had 12 goals and 33 points this year, his lowest totals since an injury-plagued 2011-12 campaign in Montreal. But he played in 79 games and found a home on the team’s shutdown line with Marcus Foligno and Johan Larsson. Gionta had two goals in Saturday’s season finale in Brooklyn, including the overtime winner to beat the New York Islanders.
He made his debut with New Jersey in 2001 and is a seven-time 20-goal scorer. Gionta keeps to a strict workout regimen prior to all practices and games and says that has helped his longevity.
“When I was 20-25 years old, I didn’t have to do those things, and now I do,” he said. “I have a certain routine, certain things I have to do, and hopefully that rubs off on those around me. It’s part of the reason why I was brought in here, and hopefully I’m doing a good enough job of that.”
After getting the opportunity he long desired, Chad Johnson made the most of it. Now he needs to find out where it’ll take him.
The goaltender stepped up in Robin Lehner’s absence, finishing tied for 12th in the NHL in save percentage at .920. He went 22-16-4 for the Sabres in 45 appearances, just one less than the previous two seasons combined.
“I always believed I could be relied upon to be a starting goaltender,” Johnson said. “It was proving that to myself and the media and to everybody.”
By proving it, he may be forced to move on from the team that gave him the chance. Lehner is still the No. 1 guy, a role Johnson wants.
“If it comes down to having to go somewhere else to get an opportunity to be the starter, then it comes down to that,” the 29-year-old said. “It’s just part of the game, but I do love it here. Throughout the summer I’ll be able to go through different possibilities.
“I think I could come into a lot of teams and improve the goalie situations. I think every player has that confidence that they can be a factor, and I think I could help a lot of teams.”
He certainly helped the Sabres, so much so that his teammates voted him Unsung Hero.
“It meant everything to me, really,” Johnson said. “It’s a huge, huge honor to have your own teammates vote for you. It’s tough not being able to know if I’m going to be back here just because I feel great about the group of guys.”
So after his first year in Buffalo, what would Eichel tell someone about playing for the Sabres? He had a quick answer when asked by The News what kind of sales pitch he would use with close friend Jimmy Vesey, the Harvard winger who won the Hobey Baker on Friday and will be an unrestricted free agent Aug. 15 after opting against signing with the Nashville Predators.
“It’s a great future here,” Eichel said. “It’s a great city to play in. It’s a great team to be a part of. We have a young group that’s headed in the right direction. It’s definitely a hockey city. People care about you here. People would love to have you.”
Vesey, Nashville’s third-round pick in 2012, is still Predators property, so teams can’t negotiate with him until his UFA period starts. Eichel and Vesey played together at last year’s world championships and work out in the Boston area during the summer. One of Vesey’s representatives is Eichel’s agent, Peter Fish.
“I talked to Jimmy last night quickly. Nothing about free agency,” said Eichel. “I just shot him a quick text congratulating him on the Hobey Baker.
“This is definitely somewhere that would be a great place to play for him. I’ll see him plenty this summer. I don’t have to bug him about it. I’m sure everyone else is, and I know he’s going through a lot right now from what he said.”
Rumors have abounded that Vesey, 22, would be off to Boston or Toronto. The Maple Leafs drafted his brother, Nolan, in 2014 and hired his father as a scout last year. Jimmy Vesey Sr. said at Friday’s Hobey ceremony in Tampa, Fla., he would prefer his son not go to Boston because of the scrutiny and pressure of being a hometown player. He also said his role with the Leafs would have no bearing on the sweepstakes.
The 6-foot-1 Vesey had 80 goals in four years for Harvard. He had 24 goals and 46 points in 33 games this season.
“There are 29 teams I can look at,” Vesey said in Tampa, “and I’ll find the best fit for me.”
The Sabres sent goaltender Linus Ullmark and forwards Evan Rodrigues and Cole Schneider back to Rochester to close the minor-league season. … Buffalo finished 23rd overall in the NHL with 81 points. The Sabres are slated to select eighth overall in the NHL Draft, but they could move into the top three via lottery or move down to 11th if three teams scheduled to pick behind them get lucky in the lottery.
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