The Buffalo Sabres have plenty of high-priced talent on their first two lines, but let's get real here. This is Jack Eichel's team. They're going as far as No. 15 can take them. Any analysis of their season starts and ends with Eichel. Both on the ice and off it.
Big-money names like Ryan O'Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Evander Kane, Jason Pominville and Rasmus Ristolainen dot the roster, but none of them comes under the heading of difference maker. This is Eichel's third season in the NHL. History says it's a common explosion point. Nothing we've seen in preseason should dissuade you from that view. When it comes to his massive contract extension, he's banking on it, too.
Eichel looks faster than ever, if that's possible. There seems to be no lingering effect of the high-ankle sprain that cost him the first 21 games of last season and dogged him for many more after that.
Eichel's first 30-goal season should be in the offing. So should his first point-a-game output.
Last year, an 82-point season would have put Eichel tied for seventh in the league with Winnipeg's Mark Scheifele. An 85-point campaign would have been tied for fifth with Boston's Brad Marchand and Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov. A 90-point output would have been second to Connor McDavid's 100 and one point ahead of both Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane.
Those numbers are a general guide for the high-rent areas of the stat sheet Eichel could reside in this year if he moves into that range. Given that he had 57 points in 61 games last year, it's hardly a stretch. And there's plenty of data that shows high draft picks enjoy marked jumps in goals, points or both from their second year in the league to their third.
Just last season, we saw Edmonton's Leon Draisaitl go from 19 goals and 51 points to 29 goals and 77 points as the Oilers pushed to the second round of the playoffs. There's no telling what reigning Hart Trophy winner McDavid might do for an encore this season after leading the league last year with 100 points in his second season.
South Buffalo's Patrick Kane went from 25 goals and 70 points in Year Two to 30 and 88 in Year Three. Pittsburgh's Jordan Staal jumped from 12-16-28 to 22-27-49 – and both of them won the Stanley Cup in their third year. Alex Ovechkin's 46-goal, 92-point sophomore season morphed into 65 goals and 112 points in year three.
In TSN's annual Top 50 poll of 22 experts from the Canadian sports television giant, Eichel was ranked as the No. 21 player in the NHL heading into the season. It's the first time Eichel has made the listing and is an example of how the buzz is building around him for this season. Eichel is ranked ahead of notables such as Ovechkin (22), Ryan Getzlaf (24), Patrice Bergeron (25) and Jonathan Toews (27).
When I mentioned to Eichel after a recent practice that history shows the third year of a young star's career is often a key season, he immediately jumped into the theory. It was pretty clear he had done some of the research too.
"That's absolutely how I look at it, how I'd like it to be," he said. "That was the goal I went into the summer with. My mindset going into Year Three is to be the leader, be the go-to guy, become one of the best players in the NHL. I want to do that every day, whether it's a practice or a game. I want to be a good teammate and help this team get better."
Since he returned to Buffalo at the end of August, Eichel has set a specific tone in his comments and his play. And it's the right one.
"I enjoy getting up and thinking about playing hockey," he said.
Things did not end well, of course, for Eichel last season. He missed a $2 million performance bonus by .005 points per game, the margin that kept him out of the league's top 10, and then staged an eye-rolling news conference at the end of the season that showed for all to see how disgusted he was with coach Dan Bylsma.
Eichel and his agents then spent parts of the following week denying a contract extension was tied to Bylsma's status, but came off looking disingenous about it when Bylsma and GM Tim Murray were canned the next day.
Eichel made sure to lay low over the summer and has moved past the tumult of last season, singing the praises of Housley and impressing the national and local media with his mature approach to the new campaign. It's what he had to show if he has thoughts of being a captain someday soon.
The Sabres have eight players drawing at least $4 million in salary this season, with O'Reilly ($9 million) and Okposo ($8 million) possessing the biggest bankrolls and cap hits, at $7.5 million and $6 million, respectively. Even with Tuesday's eight-year, $80 million extension, remember that Eichel is playing for just $925,000 this season, with performance bonuses available to take him to the $3.7 million range.
And no matter what his checkbook says, the Sabres need Eichel to get this offense going this season. The Sabres haven't broken the 200-goal barrier since the 2011-12 season. They haven't broken 250 and averaged more than three goals per game since 2007-08.
In their first 40 full seasons, the Sabres only failed to get to 200 goals once. That was when they scored 190 in the bankruptcy era of 2002-03. Now they've done it four years in a row.
Last year, the Sabres scored 126 goals at five-on-five. In 82 games. That's 1.54 per game. It's a pathetic figure that's taking you absolutely nowhere but the draft lottery. Can you imagine what the stats – and the standings – would have looked like if this team wasn't No. 1 in the league on the power play?
So while it's incumbent on Eichel to really blow up this year, it's going to be equally important for Housley's system to take root and create offense from every position on the ice.
The harsh reality is this: Few are picking the Sabres to make the playoffs this year. The sense is that they can surprise under the leadership of Housley and new GM Jason Botterill but that they're still not deep enough to make the kind of jump they need. The Sabres, remember, finished 17 points out of the playoffs last season.
The view from here calls for a 40-34-8 season, a 10-point jump to 88 but still not enough to crack the top eight of the East. So there's a good chance Eichel's entry-level contract will fly by without a single playoff game. It will frustrate him to no end but should also push his motivation even higher when the marquee money starts flowing next season.