Mike Harrington: With a letter or not, new deal locks in Eichel as the captain - The Buffalo News

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Mike Harrington: With a letter or not, new deal locks in Eichel as the captain

Connor McDavid is already wearing the "C" in Edmonton. In Toronto, the Leafs are going without a captain this season so they can clearly anoint Auston Matthews to the role next year. It sounds like the same thing is going on in Buffalo.

There are always several leaders on any hockey team and it's easy to wonder if we make too much over who the actual captain is. That guy is the one who can go talk to the referee when there's a quibble and is often left to deal with the media after an ugly loss when nobody else wants to. (Poor Brian Gionta saw this corner a lot more after losses than wins the last three years.)

But the captain is not the only one who speaks in the locker room when times are tough. He's just the one who gets the most attention.

There was no jersey presentation to Jack Eichel Wednesday afternoon when he spoke for the first time about his eight-year, $80 million extension that was signed Tuesday night. General Manager Jason Botterill, in fact, provided the definitive answer that coach Phil Housley wouldn't give up earlier in the day: The Sabres are going to start the season without a captain. And while they may revisit the issue a few times, it says here they might go the route without one.

So be it. But let's be clear: Eichel is going to be the next captain of the Blue and Gold. Whether we're talking next week, next month, next summer or next season, this contract locks it up.

He's signed through 2026 — which sounds like eons from now — as the face of the franchise. Everyone else has to line up behind No. 15.

"Whether you wear a letter on your sweater or not, you can always be a leader," Eichel said. "That's kind of the mindset I try to take. I don't necessarily need to have a 'C' or 'A' to be myself in the room, be a leader, speak up when needed or do the things I would do as a leader on the team."

It's pretty clear this group knows who will bring their bacon — and cover the tab for a giant team dinner that's going to take place at a road locale to be announced.

Andrew Galarneau: Hey, Jack Eichel, I hear you're looking for a table for 20

Early in practice Wednesday at HarborCenter, all the players dropped to their knees to open their daily stretch except for Jason Pominville. The 34-year-old, back with a franchise he first played for in 2004, skated behind Eichel and drove his stick into Eichel's back from behind to shove him into the center circle — as the leader of the stretch.

There were guffaws all over but it was clear everyone knew what that moment meant, too.

"He should be there," Pominville said. "I think everyone was kind of telling him to go in there so I gave him a push to go in there. Obviously he was probably a little embarrassed and shy and didn't want to go in there. I think it was the right thing to do."

"He's a superstar," added Ryan O'Reilly, one of the biggest voices in the locker room. "He's handled himself very maturely and that's tough to do at a young age. He's the leader of this team and we're all really excited for him. He's the guy that's going to help us do something special here for sure. He's a massive, massive part of it."

Sabres Notebook: Sabres will not name a captain to start the season

Botterill talked about how leadership will be a collaboration on this team and he's got a nice group to put the weight on, with veterans like O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo and younger players like Eichel and Rasmus Ristolainen. And don't forget Housley's clear and surprising endorsement of Evander Kane's role in the leadership group Monday as well.

But it's all going to come back to Eichel. He's played this entire situation perfectly since the summer and made all the right statements every time he was poked and prodded about it when he returned to town in late August.

Watch: Jack Eichel speaks about historic deal with Sabres

Things reached a climax Tuesday night, when he took a congratulatory phone call from owner Terry Pegula to wrap up the biggest deal in franchise history.

"When you finally agree to a contract like that it's pretty emotional," Eichel said. "Just thinking about everything you've gone through your whole life, being able to agree to something like that, everything your family has done for you, it was a pretty special moment."

Eichel has quickly forged a relationship with Botterill, who was brought in five months ago to piece together a fractured organization. Botterill came in from Pittsburgh with a great reputation in replacing Tim Murray but had to quickly earn the trust from the key players. The way he handled this process with Eichel right from the time it opened on July 1 had to be impressive to all involved.

"I want to commit to him the same way he's committed to me," Eichel said. "It means a lot to build this relationship."

Jack Eichel happy and humbled to be in Buffalo for the long term

The season starts Thursday against Montreal. Eichel will now have no distraction over his head. Even as he insisted the contract wouldn't be one, you had to wonder. No worries now.

"It's huge for the city, for the team, for himself," Pominville said. "He can just worry about playing. For what he means to the team and the city is pretty amazing. For him and the team to commit to him in that way and Terry and Kim Pegula to is pretty amazing to see.

"He's said from the start he wanted to be here and he'll definitely be here for a while. Everyone is really, really excited for him."

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