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Column: Eichel 'still pretty darned good'

Western New York must be rubbing off on Tim Murray. The day before the NHL Draft lottery, the Sabres general manager sounded reluctant to fully embrace the best-case scenario and believe the franchise would actually land the undisputed top prize, Connor McDavid.

Murray took a protective approach to the whole thing. He examined the math, hoped for the best and braced for the worst. It has been Buffalo’s modus operandi through all the devastating defeats. As stated in the “Buffalo Sports Handbook”: Anything that can go wrong, does go wrong.

OK, so the Sabres didn’t get McDavid.

Let’s not forget that the consolation prize, Jack Eichel, was still pretty darned good. He would have been the top pick overall in numerous drafts. In fact, he could wind up being better than McDavid. There’s no way of knowing until the two young stars play against similar competition over a large sample size.

Murray will say all the right things, as he should, but there was no hiding his obsession with McDavid. Owner Terry Pegula also desperately wanted to see the Canadian phenomenon in a Sabres’ sweater, which is why he gave the green light, or a direct order, to do whatever was necessary to get him.

Big picture: For the first time in nearly three decades, the Sabres will draft a true No. 1 center they can build around. Eichel has all the tools to become a franchise player, which is what the Sabres wanted all along. What’s the gap between him and McDavid? Is there a gap between him and McDavid?

Check back in a few years. Eichel hasn’t even decided whether he’ll leave Boston University or turn professional next season.

Look, I still have a beef with Buffalo’s hockey hierarchy going on a two-year losing binge in the name of one player, any player. Losing as a plan goes against what sports are about. It made people examine their ethics and character and integrity. It divided an organization and its fan base. It sent the wrong message.

You can question – or make peace with – how the draft pick was orchestrated, but there’s no ignoring, or denying, that the Sabres will be better with a player who can reshape their future. Eichel will be the best prospect Buffalo has had in years. His potential and passion for the game were never in question.

Sabres fans had been waiting for that moment for a long time, much longer than the insufferable two years in which they finished last in the league. People gathered around their television sets, knowing they would celebrate either way, to watch the lottery unfold in Toronto.

How many other U.S. cities had watch parties breaking out across the region? None. Then again, how many other markets are near the top of television ratings every year for the Stanley Cup playoffs regardless of whether its team is participating? None.

The vast majority in Arizona knew little or nothing about McDavid and Eichel even though the Coyotes, who had the second-highest chance of landing the top pick, also need someone to rescue the franchise. I can’t imagine there was much hoopla about the lottery outside of Buffalo and Toronto.

It didn’t quite work out the way many had hoped, but it will work out. Whatever pain Sabres fans felt when Edmonton nabbed the first pick overall, which is becoming a terrible habit, quickly subsided when they started thinking about Eichel.

McDavid and Eichel influenced the community so much that you would have thought there was some McEichel guy on the Common Council. Buffalo fans spent months praying to the hockey gods for a “generational player” who could lead the Sabres back to respectability and, maybe someday, Stanley Cup contention.

Sure, there’s always a hint of doubt. Nobody knows with any certainty how players will respond to the fame, fortune and expectations that come with playing in the best league in the world. The draft is littered with failures. Eichel has been universally hailed as a can’t-miss prospect.

Regardless, what the Sabres really need is a generational GM who can make the necessary moves to construct a consistent winner. The Sabres will be better with Eichel – they can’t get any worse – but he’s only one piece among many required to perform an organizational U-turn.

And the same would have been true for McDavid.

This is nothing against Murray, who accepted a thankless job and followed mandates from above to position the Sabres for the draft, but he has much to prove. A fourth-grader could have torn apart this team in the 15 months since he arrived. It will be infinitely more difficult to build than it was to knock down.

Murray arrived with a reputation as an astute personnel man, but it’s not as if he has blown away people with his trading skills. For the most part, he has shipped out pending free agents, dumped goaltenders who were playing well, stashed young talent in the minors and juniors while managing to keep his team in last place.

Buffalo fans were fawning over him for acquiring Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian, but many others believe Winnipeg was the winner. The point here isn’t to dissect Murray’s trades but to help people understand that every team is looking for the slightest edge anywhere they can find one.

Now that the lottery is out of the way, the real work begins. Murray isn’t afraid to make bold decisions. He’s undeterred by criticism. He has a sturdy backbone. All are qualities you need in a general manager, but it was going to take more than Lady Luck in the lottery for the Sabres to reach an acceptable standard.

Eichel appears to be a fantastic player, but people need to be realistic about the impact he’ll make. It’s particularly true in the short term as he gets adjusted to opponents who are bigger, stronger, faster and smarter than the collection of college kids he dominated last season.

And let’s not forget about the pressure being placed on such a high draft pick. It can be overwhelming under the best of circumstances. It could be considerably greater for this kid, thanks largely to the Sabres’ two-year plan to acquire a top-two pick and the pro-tank crowd that joined them.

Eichel will be expected to be a savior, but there are very few in hockey. It’s not basketball, where a star like Michael Jordan can make a major difference while playing 40 minutes a game. The best forwards in hockey are on the bench for 40 minutes a game. People see greatness from the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby and forget that they had great teammates.

More than anything, that’s what Eichel needs to become a game-changer.

The Sabres have promising prospects in the system. They have a good, young defense corps that needs to develop along its current arc. Forward prospects will be pushing in the near future. But people are kidding themselves if they think all will reach their potential and have the desired impact in the NHL.

Murray should have an easier time signing free agents now that Eichel will be with the Sabres. He still needs to find a true No. 1 goaltender. He needs to attract the right coach who can help bring along a young team. He will need to continue drafting and developing players for the future. History suggests there will be some misses.

The Sabres missed on McDavid, but there’s no need to worry. Eichel will be a hit.

email: bgleason@buffnews.com

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