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Mike Harrington: Twenty games in, struggles of Sabres and Eichel are hard to figure

Remember that old saying about someone who can't dance having two left feet?

Meet a hockey team you might know. At this point, the Buffalo Sabres are playing with two left skates.

Through 20 games of their season, it is utterly baffling to comprehend where this team is. If Jason Botterill and Phil Housley thought over the summer they had the answers that Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma didn't, they've quickly learned otherwise.

As we, um, sharpen our swords in the wake of Saturday's 3-1 loss to Carolina, an utter snoozefest until the final eight minutes, there's one gnawing issue that keeps growing: What's going on with Jack Eichel?

Forget about an elephant in the room. This is an entire herd. Eichel is not the guy we've seen the last two years. He was invisible again for long stretches Saturday -- not getting a single shot on goal for more than 48 minutes.

Eichel has five goals in 20 games, tallying just once in his last 11. He's got a minus-9 rating for the season. Those are the numbers. Now let's move to things you can't measure.

Eichel's body language has been terrible much of season. It's a dirty little secret fans are finally figuring out that he floats off the ice far too much on the end of his shifts.

Just don't tell Housley that. The coach simply isn't dissing any of his players in public, let alone the face of the franchise. Fair enough. You can respect that. And Housley certainly knows what happened to Byslma seven months ago too.

On one second-period play, Eichel was easily stripped of the puck by Carolina's Sebastian Aho. It's the kind of lax play you've seen more from him in the first 20 games this season than in his first two years combined.

Eichel got his wish with the firing of Bylsma, and he wasn't alone in that desire either. He got his $80 million contract as well last month. He better start repaying this franchise even before he starts collecting those big bucks come July.

With few players doing their jobs, Sabres' plummet continues

On Justin Williams' second-period goal that opened the scoring, Eichel was among several Sabres who just floated back on the play during a 2-on-1 break after a power play had ended. Resting his stick on his knees, Eichel was no factor as Williams set up shop in front of Chad Johnson, buckled Nathan Beaulieu at the knees and beat Johnson.

Sure, Eichel & Co. were spent from a long shift. Too bad. That's how it goes sometimes. Where's the extra effort? Where's any effort? Not acceptable from your megabucks man and maybe your future captain.

"Was it Williams that came out of the box? It's a tough play," Eichel said. "You're in the offensive zone trying to score and it's quickly going the other way and it's in your net."

You want Eichel to be better on the ice. To his credit, at least, he's almost always accountable for his play after games. He's 21 now, in his third year in the league and just broke the bank, so that's now going to be required.

But Housley wasn't touching any thought of Eichel floating.

"I thought Jack had a better game tonight, was definitely better in his own end," was Housley's answer.

Seriously. It only looked like the coach's nose was growing.

"I really liked the speed that he brought through the neutral zone," Housley said. "We have to see more of that."

Fair enough. Eichel's last 10 minutes were dynamic. Now what about the first two periods?

"You look at the whole body of work in the game," Housley said. "He's killing penalties and I thought he did a terrific job on the power play and I think there's an improvement in that area."

So after some keeping-it-real tough talk following Friday's no-show in Detroit from the coach, say hello to the return of Pollyanna Phil.

Still, let's not get totally crazy on Eichel on that goal. Just for the record. Victor Antipin simply can't make the pinch he made on the play near the end of a penalty and Nathan Beaulieu looked silly trying to play the odd-man rush.

Housley was angry in Detroit. Said it again here Saturday morning. Didn't look like his team was. There were 10 shots on goal in the first two periods Friday in Little Caesars Arena and 13 in the first two periods at home Saturday.

"We're killing penalties, we're in our own end not generating shots," Eichel said. "We put ourselves down, played in our own end. Missed the net on a few shots in tight. Had a breakaway that missed (by Jordan Nolan). It's tough when you have chances."

So what's it going to take for this team to play 60 minutes or even come close?

"It's mental errors. You saw the game. You know," Eichel said. "It's tough. We had them hemmed in at times and let them off the hook. It's little stuff that adds up. It's not an easy league to win in. We have to find a way to give more."

Sure do.

Arizona is only three points behind the Sabres. Arizona! The Sabres have won just five times in 20 games. By this point, in year three with Eichel and the first season with one of the most highly touted new coach-GM combos in the league, this was not part of the blueprint.

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