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Mike Harrington: The time has come to stitch the 'C' on Eichel's sweater

The door to the Sabres' locker room opened just before 9 a.m. Monday and Jack Eichel made the first impression without saying a word.

Locker cleanout day is one of those morose traditions in hockey. It's the end of the season. It's particularly rough when you're dealing with a non-playoff team packing up for the summer while the snow is still flying in April, which is what the Sabres have done pretty regularly in recent years.

Much of the equipment is packed for the players these days and no longer done in front of the media. Players simply appear in the room to do an exit interview with reporters, then go about the rest of their business, meeting with coaches and the general manager before they're dismissed.

When the room opened Monday, Eichel was standing alone in front of his locker waiting for the media. No other player was there. He wanted to be the first to speak and he had a lot to say about the third consecutive playoff miss of his career.

"It's tough, really hard. It's frustrating," Eichel said. "You kind of look back and it feels like yesterday I started here and to be three years into my career and yet to really make the impact that I'd like is frustrating for sure."

Eichel talked for nearly 15 minutes. He didn't hold back. It was riveting. It's time the Sabres ended the charade and name him the captain for next season. General Manager Jason Botterill speaks to the media on Wednesday. Do it then. Why wait until September?

When I asked Eichel point-blank if he wanted the 'C' or maybe even expected it next year at the start of his eight-year, $80-million contract extension, he insisted it's not something he's thought much about.

"Whether or not you have a 'C,' an 'A' or nothing, you can always be a leader," Eichel said. "You can always bring different things to the table. For me, I just try to be myself every day. When there's a time to say something, stand up and say something. But I don't think you need a letter to do that. You should do it out of doing what's right and trying to do the best for this team."

Eichel didn't pull any punches, either. He said there needs to be change in the dressing room. While that's fairly obvious to anyone who watched this team slog through the last 82 games and finish last in the league, it still needed to be said.

"Everybody obviously needs to look at themselves and figure out what they're doing and change it," Eichel said. "Myself, whatever I've been doing hasn't been working. What we've been doing as a team hasn't been working. All you can really do is focus on yourself and changing yourself and I think that's what helps change the culture and change the team.

"It starts every day at practice. The best teams, best players, best organizations, they're consistently doing it every night and every day. We need to find a way as an organization, as a group inside this room, to get out of whatever rut this is. It's tough. It's a lot easier said than done."

To understand why a lot of this resonates, let's go back a year.

Eichel's exit chat with reporters following the disappointing end to the 2016-17 season was conducted at the podium in the team's nearby interview room, something he was less than thrilled about. It was well-known Eichel, like most of the dressing room, was fed up with coach Dan Bylsma. And the session came the day after the season-ending loss in Tampa, a game that saw Eichel go pointless and lose a $2 million contract bonus for being in the top 10 in points per game by one one-thousandth of a point.

(Now, maybe you and I might be snippy at that last point, too. At the time, however, we weren't aware that had taken place).

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During his few minutes with reporters that day, Eichel was churlish, snotty and an all-around pain in the butt. His body language said he wanted to be anywhere in the world but there and it was initially a struggle to get him to produce multi-word answers to some questions.

That was like dealing with a petulant teenager. What we got Monday – and what we've had almost all the time this season – was a man. A leader. A 21-year-old adult.

"I've figured out a better way to communicate with you guys for sure," Eichel said. "We talk every day so we might as well make our relationship a good one. Last year I was frustrated, bitter, a bit upset. Not at you guys at all but at the way things went. I think I probably didn't handle things the right way. You look back and that's a year ago and I think I've learned some things. I've matured a bit as a person. Am I frustrated now? Yeah. Am I upset about the way things went? Yeah. But it's not a time to sit here and pout and give you guys one-word answers."

Indeed, it was not. Eichel is the face of the franchise and has to act like it. There were times in the first two seasons he didn't seem to get that hint. He fully understood that this season and it was on display Monday.

"His leadership has taken the next step," said Evan Rodrigues, Eichel's friend and former college linemate. "He wants to take that role, and he wants to be a leader. I think you can see it in the way he acts and the way he talks in the room. You can sense that he wants it."

"We have to communicate a message to our fans, our organization, our city that as bad as things were, we're going to change," Eichel said. "We're going to change things around here. It starts with me.

"It's been a tough three years but I'm fully invested in this team, this organization, this city. I'm here for a while and I'm excited about it. I'm excited about the future. Things will get better."

Eichel has been good in his three years, with 177 points in 209 games. He's averaged 24.3 goals and 59 points per season. But now the big money kicks in and he has to become elite. New Jersey and Colorado both went from last in their conferences to the playoffs in one year. Now, the Sabres need help on defense and in goal to do that. But they also need to see Eichel become a reincarnation of Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon – a good player who becomes a Hart Trophy candidate.

"There comes a part in your career where you have to realize what's important – obviously, winning," said coach Phil Housley. "What it takes to win and the commitment to win in this league. And that's when we talk about the change with Colorado, there's a group of players there that got together and said, 'We need to change. We need to do things differently. We need to listen. We need to be coachable.' And you can see the result. It requires a big commitment."

Eichel seems ready to make it. The franchise already made a tangible one to him in October with the contract. A hugely symbolic one should be next.

"Coming back this year, they had a bit of a new mindset," Eichel said of good friend MacKinnon and the Avalanche. "They felt refreshed and ready. You have success, you start believing in yourself and in the process and good things happen. You can't sit here and feel sorry for yourself or feel sorry for the team.

"We've got to take the next step and honestly it starts now in your preparation for next season. Sixteen teams are going to play in the playoffs for the next few months and we're not going to do anything. We've got to get ready for next season."

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