All the talk, all the attention, all the camera clicks and all the applause Monday was pretty much for Jack Eichel. That’s what you would expect. That’s how it probably should have been for his first day on the ice with the Sabres crest on his chest.
It was easy to like Eichel’s wide stance, slick skating and heavy shot. Eichel is as close to a sure thing as you’ll get out of a No. 2 overall draft pick, probably because he would have been No. 1 just about any other year.
But let’s not forget the Sabres have had the No. 2 pick for two straight years. Sam Reinhart is now the other guy. But what an X-factor he can be come October.
You watch development camp and you see wide-eyed 18-year-olds struggling with their first taste of the NHL.
I loathe to make any judgments about much this time of the year, but Reinhart sure looked like a NHLer Monday compared to all the kids. That’s how he needs to look on the ice all the time this week.
Reinhart said point-blank he expects to be in Buffalo to start the season and not Rochester.
“That’s been the goal and the expectation for a while and I’ve been working at that,” Reinhart said. “I’m motivated to make that jump.”
When most of you last saw Reinhart, he looked lost. He was overmatched through his nine NHL games, failing to score a goal, when the Sabres mercifully sent him back to junior hockey. He returned to Kootenay of the Western League needing to work on his skating and, most of all, on his conditioning.
Early returns are very good. Reinhart looks more chiseled. His skating appears eons better, with strong, confident strides and sharp turns. Every step had a purpose. No energy was wasted.
“A lot more confident with it this year than last, there’s no question about that,” he said.
Under the bright lights of the World Junior Championships, Reinhart was sensational in leading Canada to a gold medal. But you heard a lot of chatter last season that he was bored in juniors, where he collected 19 goals and 65 points in 47 games with Kootenay after returning from Buffalo. Reinhart explained Monday that his final season in British Columbia simply wasn’t about numbers.
General Manager Tim Murray was crushed that the first No. 1 pick of his reign in Buffalo was initially a failure. But he also looked at it as a temporary setback, leaving Reinhart with a clear message of how to carry on. The work off the ice in the gym was going to be as important, maybe even more important, as what Reinhart did in games.
“He was aware if I wanted to be in this position this year that I would have to take some off the ice, take some of my game away,” Reinhart explained. “When I went back to junior, it was challenging. For me, I want to be 100 percent every day when I went on the ice. But to be able to get in the gym and be where I was at both on and off the ice at the end of the year was essential for me.”
Reinhart went head-to-head at times with Eichel during the celebrated USA-Canada game on New Year’s Eve in Montreal. Reinhart and Canada were clearly better that night against an American team that didn’t respond well to the magnitude of the event.
You wonder how much that’s getting talked about this week: Sabres brass have paired Reinhart and Eichel as roommates.
“There’s no question we battled out there,” Reinhart said of the showdown in Bell Centre. “He’s not the easiest guy to contain down low.”
Asked if he’s given Eichel any advice on handling the kind of attention he got last summer, Reinhart said Eichel is doing just fine on his own.
“It doesn’t stop and he knows that,” he said. “I didn’t know him before this week but watching him go through all that draft stuff, he handled it phenomenally. He’s a mature guy and he knows exactly how to conduct himself on and off the ice.”
With Ryan O’Reilly and Eichel slated to fill the top two center positions, that lessens the burden on Reinhart. He could make the team as the No. 3 center, and said he’d easily move to the wing if needed too.
What gave Reinhart a kick-start into the offseason was the chance to play three games in Rochester after his junior season concluded. The reports were good. He was moving better with and without the puck and was much more competitive than he had been a few months earlier in Buffalo.
“I was excited for that opportunity. It allowed me to go into the offseason knowing what the pro game was like,” Reinhart said. “Obviously a little different than the NHL level but with that being said, a lot different than the junior level as well. It was a step up. I had taken some away from my game on ice throughout the year but I was preparing for another chance professionally. It was motivating to get that opportunity and made me confident going into the offseason.”
Eichel and Reinhart will probably compare plenty of notes in the upcoming days. Reinhart doesn’t turn 20 until Nov. 6, Eichel won’t hit 19 until Oct. 28. Come Friday night during the Blue & Gold scrimmage that’s sure to be the highlight of this camp, they’ll be on opposite sides again. It’s a feeling they won’t have to get used to.
“Unfortunately, I’m not on his team this week,” Reinhart said. “But hopefully that changes soon.”