For the last eight years, July 1 has always had the most negative connotation when it comes to the Sabres. Enough of that. The 2007 departures of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury can finally start to be put to rest, on the calendar at least. Someday, the performance on the ice will erase the day the co-captains walked out the door too.
NHL free agency day can finally have a new meaning for Buffalo fans, as the anniversary of the day Jack Eichel signed his first pro contract. General Manager Tim Murray was bang-on right when he called it “a great event in this organization’s history.” And we’ll have a couple more next week when Eichel takes the ice for development camp and finally shows his wares in game action during the July 10 scrimmage.
(Seriously now, how many people will be there on a Friday night in July to see Eichel? Will it be 10,000? Maybe 15,000? It darn well might be.)
Think of what recent July 1 days have meant for this organization. Not a single playoff series victory since Briere and Drury’s departure. The signings of unforgettables like Shaone Morrisonn and John Scott. And dare I say Ville Leino and Andrej Meszaros? Yikes.
At least last year, on his first free agent day as GM here, Murray also got Brian Gionta, brought back Matt Moulson and completed the trade for Josh Gorges. So we’ll give him a mulligan for Meszaros because we know what that was all about (wink-wink/tank-tank).
This year, there was Eichel wearing jeans and a Sabres polo. His entry-level deal was signed. Murray talked about the 18-year-old taking the franchise places it’s never been. Eichel kept saying this was his dream. His humility was clear. There was no lofty talk about point totals, a Calder Trophy, a playoff berth. None of it. He called his new GM “Mr. Murray.”
“I still have to make the team first. That’s my first goal,” Eichel said. “After that, I really haven’t thought about it much. It’s really been a whirlwind the last week. I’m sure I’ll be able to sit down and set some goals for myself personally.”
Of course, if Eichel doesn’t make this team there would be an FBI investigation into the scouting staff of the Sabres and every other NHL club that wanted to land him. I can’t stop laughing at the thought.
“I don’t chuckle at all,” insisted new coach Dan Bylsma. “I think he does have to make the team. I’d like to say that things are handed out in this game but they’re not. It’s fun to ask the question, ‘Where’s he going to play? What would be a good fit?’ But Jack will tell you there are areas he needs to get better at and he knows it because he played against good players at the World Championships. He does have to come in with the mindset that he has to earn his spot on our team.”
So what does Eichel have to do? Bylsma said Eichel has to continue to work at his play away from the puck, using his skating ability to improve. Like any other 18-year-old.
“He’s got special athleticism,” noted Murray, who marveled at the pace in which Eichel processes everything taking place when he’s on the ice.
Eichel won’t be fed to the NHL wolves in the way that Taylor Hall was in Edmonton a few years back. The expected longterm signing of Ryan O’Reilly takes the pressure off Eichel to immediately serve as a No. 1 center.
But Eichel will still be a major focus – if not the No. 1 focus – of attention on the Buffalo roster. Evander Kane has never had the chance to go under the radar much, but he might get that here quite a bit of the time with Eichel around. Every detail will be dissected, with a main topic right now his still uncertain choice of a uniform number. Fans are waiting.
It’s a position Eichel understands. He’s dealt with it since his youth hockey days, through his one year in college that included a role as Team USA captain in the World Junior Championships.
“I’m sure I’ll have 100 times more expectation next year but that’s part of it,” he said. “I think that brings out the best of me. I want to work to fulfill those expectations and exceed them.”
Eichel has been followed around by cameras and microphones for the better part of a month. From the Stanley Cup final in Chicago to all the pre-draft activities in Miami and Fort Lauderdale to the selection party itself in Sunrise. A lot of it felt unnatural. Now he can do what comes naturally here next week.
“I couldn’t be more excited to get back on the ice and get in my summer routine of training, skating and competing,” he said. “That’s what I love to do and that’s what hockey players love to do. I can’t wait for it. I can’t wait to get back on the ice. That’s the most exciting time.”
Absolutely. Eichel starts his career in Blue and Gold next week. Their mistakes on the most important summer date of the NHL offseason will soon be a much more distant memory.