Tim Murray has gotten to know Jack Eichel pretty well during the past month. Whether it was formal interviews, chats at the draft or a relaxing night on a yacht, the Sabres’ general manager couldn’t help but notice how genuine Eichel seemed.
Murray is confident that will serve the 18-year-old well now that’s he embarking on an NHL career.
“The accolades that he’s had for the last couple years and a lot of people paying attention to him, I’m not sure I could have kept an even keel at that age,” Murray said Wednesday. “That really impresses me about him. The fact that he talks about he still has to make our team and things like that, nothing’s a given to him or his family. I think that bodes well for us certainly as an organization, and I think it bodes well for him when he does get another level of success at the NHL level.
“You can see in kids pretty quickly if they’re legit or not, and I believe that he’s legit.”
Sabres fans are ecstatic they’ll get to see Eichel with their own eyes. After a week of dropping hints that he’d turn pro, Eichel signed a three-year, entry-level contract. He’ll earn the rookie maximum of $925,000 per season, but bonuses could boost the pact to more than $2 million annually.
“Looking at the Sabres’ organization, there’s such a bright future here,” Eichel said in First Niagara Center. “It seemed like a no-brainer. It’s been a dream to potentially be playing professional hockey, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make an impact for the Sabres next year.”
Eichel, drafted second overall Friday, has known for nearly two months that he’d leave Boston University for life as a professional. His showing against NHLers at the World Championships convinced him it was time. He finished third in scoring for the United States, putting up seven points in 10 games.
“Before the World Championships, I was a little bit unsure,” he said. “After going over there and having the experience I did, talking to a lot of guys, I came back pretty set on moving on.
“This is where I want to be. It’s a dream come true to be able to sign a contract, but the real work starts now. The biggest dream is to make the team.”
The Sabres already have him penciled in as the No. 2 center. But, as Murray said, it’s a good sign that Eichel isn’t expecting to be handed a spot.
“I’m just going to work as hard as I can this summer and come to camp with a good attitude,” Eichel said. “I’ll be around here a lot this summer working out and skating.”
Eichel’s first time on the ice will be Monday when the Sabres start their seven-day development camp. After a month of microphones and cameras, he can’t wait for pucks and skates.
“I couldn’t be more excited to get back on the ice and get in my summer routine of training and skating and competing,” Eichel said.
Based on his history, Eichel will be way better than his peers next week. Based on NHL history, he will feel out of place at times as a rookie. The Sabres will try to prepare him for that. They may have him live with a veteran to ease his off-ice burdens.
“He’s going to have some nights where things don’t go his way,” Murray said. “It’s how he handles that and how our coaching staff helps him with that. If he stays positive on those nights, I think there’ll be fewer and fewer as we go along.”
Said Eichel: “I expect a lot out of myself. We’re also talking about the National Hockey League. It’s the best league in the world, and it’s tough for an 18-year-old to come and do some special things. I’m up for the challenge.”
Though he spent just one year in college, he leaves as one of the most dynamic players in NCAA history. He became just the second freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award, recording 26 goals and 71 points in 40 games.
“I’m sure I’ll have 100 times more expectations next year,” he said. “I think that brings out the best in me. I want to work to fulfill those expectations and exceed them.”
While signing Eichel was the highlight of Murray’s day, he ended it with more work to do. He’s still searching for a top-four defenseman and needs to give Ryan O’Reilly a contract extension.
Several left-handed defensemen signed on the opening day of free agency, including Paul Martin (San Jose), Andrej Sekera (Edmonton) and Francois Beauchemin (Colorado). The Sabres never looked at Beauchemin. Johnny Oduya was the top D-man remaining.
“I have made some offers,” Murray said. “A couple guys that we have talked about signed elsewhere. A couple guys have not signed.
“I’ve been on the phone with teams probably since the draft talking about trades for NHL defensemen. They haven’t been real eager to do anything.”
The GM has talked with O’Reilly’s camp about a long-term, big-dollar deal. The top-line center, acquired from Colorado on Friday, is entering the final season of a two-year, $12 million contract. Wednesday was the first day he and the Sabres could sign an extension.
“We’ve negotiated,” Murray said. “We’ve exchanged contracts, so I believe through our experience we’re pretty close.”