News Sports Reporter
MIAMI – There was plenty of fun for Jack Eichel and the top NHL Draft prospects Wednesday at Marlins Park. Eichel took his cuts at the plate and even threw a ceremonial first pitch prior to the Miami Marlins’ game against the St. Louis Cardinals. He also seems to be cutting down the time to officially announce he’s coming to the NHL. ¶ “I think there’s kind of a little update so I guess we’ll find out sooner rather than later,” Eichel said to a small group of reporters on the field. ¶ Asked by The Buffalo News if he’d like to give his update on the spot, Eichel laughed and said simply, “No.” ¶ It’s widely expected that Eichel will decide to leave Boston University and join the Sabres after they make him the No. 2 overall pick Friday night in Sunrise. Eichel has been consistent for weeks in saying he would wait until after the draft to make that call, but rumblings are growing he may make it official even before Sabres General Manager Tim Murray calls his name from the stage at BB&T Center. ¶ When he returned from a clubhouse meeting with Marlins players, Eichel told The News he wasn’t going to let his words run amok. ¶ “We’ll see,” Eichel said. “All I know is that when I talked at the Stanley Cup Final about school that people went and ran with that. I know people will jump on anything I say so we’ll just leave it as ‘no decision yet.’ ” ¶ But it should be noted that Eichel emphasized
The trip to a ballpark has become a tradition of sorts for the top prospects in the days leading to the draft. Eichel and five others, including presumptive No. 1 overall choice Connor McDavid, were on hand this year.
Batting right-handed and wearing a No. 9 Marlins home white jersey, Eichel fouled off several pitches until finally starting to square up deliveries from Marlins assistant hitting coach Lenny Harris and spraying some line drives to left and center field.
“I felt like I was on a golf course, popping too many up and getting under everything,” Eichel said. “I’ve been golfing too much.”
Lawson Crouse, the 6-foot-4 forward from Kingston of the OHL, was the only one of the six prospects to hit a home run, blasting a ball deep to right. Eichel nearly drilled Crouse with a line drive as the prospects started to drift to the outfield near the end of their sessions.
“I was trying to smoke the ball too much,” Eichel said. “We shouldn’t have let Crouse go first. He set the bar too high.”
Eichel and McDavid were joined by Crouse, Erie’s Dylan Strome, London’s Mitch Marner and Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin. Only Eichel and McDavid threw first pitches.
“Some of the people that have thrown out first pitches, well, I’ve seen some pretty pathetic ones, to be honest,” Eichel said. “Plus I played baseball. I think I’ll be able to hit the plate.”
Eichel was a little off. With mascot Billy the Marlin doing the catching, Eichel’s delivery was high and outside. But it was definitely served up with more oomph than McDavid’s.
Earlier in the day, Eichel was named one of five nominees for Male College Athlete of the Year for the ESPYs, the Oscar-style awards show run annually by ESPN. The winner will be announced July 15. Eichel is up against Oregon quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, Wisconsin basketball standout Frank Kaminsky, Ohio State wrestler Logan Stieber and Vanderbilt baseball star Dansby Swanson.
“It’s a nice honor, really cool,” Eichel said. “I started getting texts about that this morning. You look at the guys like Mariota and Kaminsky. It’s nice to be in that conversation.”
Eichel said there’s no relief to the long-awaited arrival of draft week. It’s all part of the process of the season that started for him way back in September.
“It’s all really fun. It’s always fun coming to a big-league stadium and a great event like this,” he said. “There’s no pressure on Friday. We’re all excited. It’s a great time for everyone to enjoy. You’re at the NHL Draft in a beautiful area of Florida. … it’s nice to do things like this with these guys.”
The prospects have a full docket of activities on Thursday. They’ll be on the ice in the morning for a public youth clinic at the Florida Panthers’ practice rink in Coral Springs, then head to the Everglades for a private boat tour in the afternoon.
“I’m pretty nervous about that,” Eichel said with a laugh. “I heard there’s a lot of pythons. Fifteen-foot alligators. I want no part of that. I’m petrified of alligators and snakes. There’s a lot of that stuff going on down there.”
There will then be a session with the media at the Westin Resort on Fort Lauderdale Beach, the last time the prospects will be seen before they are drafted. Sabres brass began arriving here Tuesday and most landed on Wednesday. Murray and team President Ted Black were en route from the general managers/Board of Governors meetings in Las Vegas.