Jack Eichel, maybe more than anyone in hockey, believes off-ice relationships contribute to on-ice success. He credits his friendship with college linemates for leading him to the Hobey Baker Award. He praises team-wide camaraderie for carrying Boston University to the national championship game.
So as he wrapped up his impressive rookie season, it was no surprise to hear him say his budding friendship with Sam Reinhart is the reason they finished the year as Buffalo’s no-look passing, goal-celebrating duo.
“On-ice chemistry starts off the ice, and your personal relationship with someone can definitely help the way you play on the ice,” Eichel said. “I think that’s the case here. Sam and I have a really good relationship off the ice. We do a lot together. We room on the road together. It seems like we’re always together.
“We both understand each other and understand the players that we are and understand the player that the other person is. I think we feed off each other well.”
There’s no question. Eichel and Reinhart became regular linemates March 1, and they combined for 12 goals and 29 points in 18 games. One decision about next season is so simple that coach Dan Bylsma has made it six months before the puck drops.
Eichel and Reinhart will be Sabres linemates again.
“That one I have written down for next year,” Bylsma said.
When Buffalo drafted Eichel and Reinhart with back-to-back No. 2 picks, it was easy to see the players would be key parts of the rebuild. It was harder to envision them doing it together. Both were drafted as centers, so folks figured they would be a one-two punch rather than a right-hand haymaker.
After coming together for the last month of the season, it’s hard to imagine them playing apart.
“It certainly took some time to get used to each other,” Reinhart said. “Once we did, I think it made us better.
“As soon as the puck gets on my stick, and I think vice versa as well, I’m looking for him. He’s going to get open. He’s going to be there to make the play. I think it goes both ways. We’re looking for each other now. We’ve come a long way together.”
They’ve also come a long way individually. For Eichel, everything changed with a trip home.
The 19-year-old woke up Christmas morning in Massachusetts as a solid rookie contributor. He had nine goals and 16 points in 34 games, not bad for a teenager feeling his way through the best league in the world. But he wanted to be more than part of the team. He wanted to be a difference maker.
In the 47 games after Christmas, Eichel put up 15 goals, 25 assists and 40 points. He finished with 24 goals and 56 points, becoming the first rookie to lead the Sabres in goals since Ray Sheppard in 1987-88.
“I kind of took that turn after Christmastime,” he said. “I started to take more onus in my own game and take more responsibility and expect more out of myself.”
The Sabres noticed.
“The biggest thing is what he can do at top speed, and that speed is a speed I can’t get to and a lot of guys in the league can’t get to,” said center Ryan O’Reilly, who praised Eichel’s shot and puck protection. “He generates so much. He’s a dangerous player. He gets a step on you, he’s going to make something happen.
“He’s only going to grow his game in other areas and be more dangerous.”
Buffalo hopes Eichel’s potential entices top free agents to join him. Wingers with scoring talent are fond of centers who have the puck.
“He’s a dynamic young center who could possibly be the best player or in the conversation for best player in this league in the next couple years,” General Manager Tim Murray said. “If I’m a winger, if I’m looking around the league, that’s one guy that I definitely want to play with. If I’m a goal scorer, I would love for Buffalo to give me a chance.”
For Reinhart, the transformation from wide-eyed rookie to regular performer came in October in Tampa Bay. After not being a lock to make the team, he scuffled through the opening four games with just 11:05 of ice time. He got a chance alongside Tyler Ennis and Ryan O’Reilly, and he scored his first NHL goal just 2:52 into the game.
“From there my confidence took off and I was able to get back to my game,” said Reinhart, who finished second on the Sabres with 23 goals while adding 19 assists. “Coming in at a young age, I think success is if you get better every day. For the most part, I was able to do that.”
Reinhart’s improvement as a 20-year-old came in virtually every category, from strength to speed to stamina. The two biggest advances were his shot and ability to tip pucks. He was a regular in front of the net, deflecting shots and screening goaltenders.
“There hasn’t been a year when I’ve been there more than I have this year,” Reinhart said. “The puck’s got to get there eventually. Obviously, I’ve been playing with some pretty good players, and they’re going to get the puck there. I’ve learned to put that in my game when it’s needed.
“If I can put the same work in that I did last summer, that’ll be a good summer for me.”
Despite the tangible improvement for both players, neither is content. They feel they have much more to give.
“I’m pretty happy with it but never satisfied,” Eichel said. “For me, it’s going home, getting better at things I think I can get better at in the offseason and coming back with more responsibility in that second year and helping this team try to make the playoffs.
“I started to get better as the season went on, and hopefully I can take that next turn next year.”