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Denials aside, Housley makes move to demote Eichel

We're going to move past all the hockey coach cliches here. Phil Housley went through his Rolodex of them to reporters Monday morning in four minutes: just get a different look, fresh combinations, better balance. He even hit my favorite: We don't number lines. Even though, of course, coaches and GMs routinely talk about their "top six" and "bottom six" forwards.

So let's call what we saw Monday from the Buffalo Sabres what it is — Jack Eichel has been demoted.

Maybe it lasts for one shift Monday night against the Columbus BlueJackets. Maybe it lasts the whole game. Maybe it lasts all week, a rugged stretch that will see the Sabres play four games in six days.

But there's a message being sent here by Housley in the first bold move of his tenure as the head man: What we're seeing from Eichel isn't nearly good enough. No. 15 is not alone in his lax play during the Sabres' 0-3-2 slide, but he's the main man. You get an $80 million deal in your pocket, you're going to be made an example of. Especially when your team is 5-11-4.

At least to start Monday night, Eichel is playing between Zemgus Girgensons, a plugger with one goal, and 34-year-old Jason Pominville. Neither has scored in November.

Sabres star Jack Eichel appears to be moving to third line

Ryan O'Reilly will now be in Eichel's spot between Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart. And Johan Larsson will be in O'Reilly's spot between Benoit Pouliot and Kyle Okposo. Aside from Larsson, that's been your top six for several games.

Eichel is out of that group for now.

Eichel has five goals in 20 games and is minus-9 for the season. He has one goal in his last 11 games and floated back into his zone to ghastly proportions on the opening goal here Saturday by Carolina's Justin Williams.

If he wanted to keep any respect in the locker room or in the fan base, Housley could not let a play like that go by unchallenged.

Housley keeps things behind closed doors and you can respect that. What he said to Eichel has to be different than what he said in the interview room today.

Asked why Eichel was being dropped to the third line today, Housley quickly shot back, "There's no third line." So I immediately jumped in and asked him to name his first line. He quickly answered Kane and O'Reilly. Uh-huh.

"I don't think Eichel is being demoted," Housley insisted. "I think he's such a terrific player, I think you can put anybody on his wings."

It is hard to think Terry Pegula envisioned the guy he opened the vault to the day before the season began to be playing with two guys who haven't scored a goal all month.

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

Eichel stood in front of his locker again Monday and took the media bullets, just as he did after Saturday's game. Good on him. Lots of players would hide. Obviously, however, Eichel wasn't happy to be dealing with the line of questioning he got.

Asked point-blank if he agreed with the perception he had been demoted, Eichel said brusquely, "I don't. They just changed the lines and I'm playing with two new players."

Eichel said there was nothing unusual to him about what happened Monday morning.

"We're obviously trying to get things going and switch things up so we'll see tonight," he said. "No message. It's part of the game. We had a team meeting, just normal morning meetings, went about our business, and it's another game day, another chance to win."

This is the first sign of Housley asserting some power here. Of course, we know what happened to Dan Bylsma when he tried to do something similar. Remember the uproar last December when Eichel got yanked off one power play? Housley has to know the coach won't be made the victim again.

And his anger has been brewing. He said after Saturday's game that his patience really started to wane Friday night in Detroit, and he ultimately had to do something about Eichel in the wake of Saturday.

Eichel was brilliant at times in the final 12 minutes against the Hurricanes. He was mostly invisible in the first 48 minutes, when he didn't have a single shot on goal.

The Sabres have fallen to last in the league in scoring at 2.3 goals per game. In a year where scoring is at its highest since the year after the lockout. Housley had to stop sitting idly by and make a big move here.

"Everyone needs to pull in the right direction when we're out there to do their part," Eichel said. "When we've done that, we've had success. When we haven't, we've struggled to score goals. ... It's frustrating. It's tough. It's a hard league to score in."

Except it really hasn't been this year in most places.

"You don't want to lose confidence," said Pominville, who had six goals in the first 12 games but none in his last eight. "You want to keep believing you can get it done. Once you lose that confidence is when it gets tough. Hopefully guys still have that and we can still find that swagger and get that back and get going offensively."

Make it stop: Pain of Buffalo fans could reach historic levels tonight

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