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All eyes are on Eichel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The hoopla is finally in Jack Eichel’s rearview mirror. He’s done throwing baseballs, scoring on 8-year-olds, avoiding alligators and facing a barrage of cameras.

Until the Buffalo Sabres call his name with the second overall pick Friday night in the NHL Draft, Eichel is just going to be an 18-year-old hanging out with his family. They’ll walk the beach in Florida and reflect on the long journey they’ve made together.

“I’m really looking forward to just winding down and just spending time with them because it means a lot that all my friends and family would come down here and support me,” said Eichel, who has a group of about 30 surrounding him. “Obviously, it’s a nice trip to Florida for them and they all jumped on the opportunity to do it, but it’s really nice to have them all here supporting me and being able to enjoy this experience with them.

“I’ll just be thinking about all the people who have helped me get to this point that I am. ... There’s so many people that have sacrificed so much for me to be able to do what I do. I’m just really happy to share this with them.”

Eichel and Connor McDavid, who is expected to go first overall to Edmonton in BB&T Center, have been front and center in the days, months and year heading into the Draft. The process has dragged on at times, but it will come to an end when the teams step to the dais and make their selections.

“It’s going to be a special moment for my family and myself,” Eichel said Thursday. “It seems like it’s been a build-up for a while, and I think the last two years it’s been a really big build-up. Whoever calls my name, I’ll be super excited. I think it’s going to be a great moment.”

On the eve of the Draft, Eichel still refused to acknowledge the inevitable: Edmonton will draft McDavid and Buffalo will draft Eichel. The Oilers have given McDavid tours of their arenas. The Sabres have talked of how Eichel will impact their team and merchandise sales. Despite all that – and plenty more – Eichel is going into the event with wide-eyed wonder.

“Obviously, everyone has made it seem like I’m going to go No. 2 to Buffalo,” he said. “That’s the most likely route, but it also is the NHL Draft and you really never know what’s going to happen because you’re not the general manager and none of us are the teams. It’s out of my control.

“It’ll be nice to finally be locked down with one specific team and kind of have an idea of where I’m going.”

Once Eichel hears his name, the Boston University center will announce whether he’ll return to school for his sophomore season or jump to the NHL. He inadvertently let the decision slip during a question about being a “generational talent,” and relief swept through Sabreland.

“I don’t think of myself as the next, as you guys call it, generational player,” Eichel said. “I don’t look at that at all. I want to work hard and try to make the NHL next year and try to be an impact player.”

He’ll make the Sabres, and they have little doubt he’ll eventually become an impact player.

“He’s going to be a quality guy for us and a future captain,” said Greg Royce, Buffalo’s director of amateur scouting. “We have the confidence that he could be the best player in this draft.”

Eichel is definitely one of the more entertaining prospects. After looking into television cameras and tape recorders nearly nonstop since the NHL Scouting Combine earlier this month, he jumped at the chance to be on the other side of the microphone. He borrowed a recorder from an NHL.com reporter and joined an interview of fellow prospect Mitch Marner, who coincidentally had just been asked about Eichel. The duo had just finished conducting a skills clinic for more than 50 youth players from Florida.

“He’s not as good as I really thought he was,” the 160-pound Marner said while smiling up at the 193-pound Eichel. “I thought he was a little stronger on his feet. I kind of pushed him off easily on the ice, but he’s getting a lot better.”

Eichel then asked: “How’d you think that goalie felt today when you went top cheese on him? He’ll probably remember that forever, huh?”

“Yeah, I gave him a hug after and said, ‘You’ll get me next time,’” Marner said. “Then Jack went down and put it between his legs and embarrassed him completely in front of everyone. Once again, Jack just being Jack, and it doesn’t really surprise me too much. He’s just trying to show his skill, and he wasn’t showing too much.”

Sabres fans will soon see in person how much skill the 18-year-old has. The wait for the NHL Draft is almost over.

Eichel is ready for it. In fact, while most of the other prospects said they’d be too nervous to sleep, Eichel made it clear he’ll be well-rested when he pulls on an NHL sweater.

“I’ve got a king bed to myself in my own room,” Eichel said. “I’ll sleep fantastic.”

email: jvogl@buffmews.com

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