It’s the decision that will have both Sabres fans and Buffalo brass uneasy for the next several months. There’s no quick resolution coming.
Once the Sabres draft Jack Eichel with the No. 2 overall pick on June 26, what is the Boston University star going to do?
Eichel will almost certainly attend development camp when it’s held here in July. Then he has to decide if he’s going to enroll for his sophomore year at BU or sign a pro contract and come play in the NHL. Most observers expect Eichel to eventually pick Buffalo, but the decision is hardly the lock one might think.
For starters, Eichel’s team lost in the championship game of the NCAA Frozen Four to Providence. So that leaves Eichel with another goal to shoot for in college with another strong lineup returning from a 28-win team that was one of the most improved in NCAA history. And it’s not a money issue, as Eichel will be limited to his entry-level deal paying $925,000 per season in the NHL.
Eichel figures to open next season as Buffalo’s No. 1 center, perhaps with Evander Kane on his wing. If he’s not in Blue and Gold, it would be a significant delay in the team’s rebuilding process. Still, it would only be a temporary one. Unlike baseball, where players who opt to stay in college are lost, NHL teams retain rights to drafted collegiate players for three years.
“I have no expectation. He’s not our property,” Sabres general manager Tim Murray said after Saturday night’s draft lottery in Toronto. “I haven’t spoken to him. That will be probably the second thing I say to him after the draft: ‘Congratuations and what are your plans?’
Murray, of course, is simplifying matters. The Sabres most certainly will press Eichel for some clarity on the point long before the draft, likely when they interview him at the NHL Scouting Combine here in the first week of June. But it’s a complex question.
“I wouldn’t tell him he had to leave,” Murray said. “I would give him the pros and cons of going back in my opinion. Unless there’s a personal reason, a family reason, guys of his caliber … hockey-wise, there’s probably not a great reason to stay in school.”
BU coach David Quinn, however, is on record that he wants Eichel to come to school for at least another year. No surprise there. And it’s expected the school is going to put a full-court press on Eichel to stay.
On Friday night, just 24 hours before the lottery, BU announced Eichel would be one of its assistant captains for the 2015-16 season. Uh-huh.
On Saturday, Eichel was named to Team USA for next month’s World Championships in Prague. Playing a tournament against many NHL players should also give him a gauge of where his game is at. Speaking on a conference call with reporters Saturday, Eichel was non-committal on his plans.
“I’m sure the decision will be made at the right time,” he said. “Right now I’ve got a long way to go. With that being said, it’s a dream for me and I’d love to play in the National Hockey League.”
There is some precedence for high picks to return to school after they have been drafted. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews was the third pick in 2006 but went back to North Dakota for a second season. And Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk played two years at New Hampshire after being tabbed second overall by Philadelphia in 2007.
“It would be another great year of development, college hockey and life with Coach Quinn,” Eichel told Boston reporters after the Frozen Four. “There are positives to it any way you look at it. At the end of the day, when a decision has to be made, I will make it with my family and with my heart. I don’t want to be somewhere that I don’t want to be.”
The BU hockey network is a strong one. Mike Eruzione, an alum who is the captain of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team and still works at the school in fundraising, said during a February conference call that Eichel is bound for NHL stardom and would benefit from more time in college hockey. Former Terrier Colin Wilson, the No. 7 pick by Nashville in 2008, returned to school and led BU to a national title in 2009 before going pro.
In a New York Times story last month, Wilson said he had spoken with Eichel about staying in school.
“Best decision I ever made,” said Wilson. “That second year at BU for me really changed my life. I found my game, I grew as a person and we won a championship. Looking back, my only regret is that I didn’t stay another year. Then again, I wasn’t Jack Eichel.”
Added Quinn in the same story: “I have a horse in this race. And it’s not just a horse. It’s a thoroughbred. It’s Secretariat.”