Jack Eichel got an unexpected wake-up call Wednesday morning. His roommate and teammate Sam Reinhart was strumming a guitar in the apartment they share.
Welcome back to Buffalo, Jack.
“He thinks he’s an artist but he woke me up,” Eichel said.
What song was he playing?
“Ah, he was just strumming the guitar. He doesn’t know what he’s playing,” Eichel said with a casual shrug of his shoulder and a well-timed delivery.
There were more jokes about living with Reinhart, including a reluctant admission that they’ve been eating out too much. “We should probably work on that,” Eichel said. “We need to go do the groceries.”
Eichel always has been a confident hockey player but entering his second professional season, with one NHL tour under his belt and a fantastic ride with Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey, he’s upped his confidence game.
“You just become more comfortable with things. I think you can say the same thing for both of us,” Eichel said, referring to Reinhart. “Year One, there’s that little bit of shyness to start the year. I think we both obviously came along and I think for the most part it says a lot about the guys in the room. They made us feel comfortable from Day One and I think that’s what allowed us to be successful on the ice and enjoy our time here. I think that’s important and for me and Sam it’s important we do that for the younger guys.”
Wednesday was the first practice for Eichel at Sabres training camp after an exciting, and slightly disappointing, World Cup experience.
Eichel had a goal and an assist in the three round-robin games, including an assist in the final game against Sweden. The dramatic game saw Team North America take a 2-0 lead then a 3-2 advantage after one period. Sweden tied the game in the third to send it to overtime, with North America notching the victory in the three-on-three session.
It became an instant hockey classic.
But Team North America had to wait for the result of the Russia-Finland game to see if it would advance to the semifinals. A 4-3 loss to Russia and giving up the overtime point to Sweden meant the collection of young guns needed help. When Russia defeated Sweden, it was all over for Team North America, and a dynamic collection of hockey players dispersed to their NHL camps.
“It was definitely tough,” Eichel said. “You’d like to put the fate in your own hands. You don’t want to put the fate in someone else’s hands. You want to be able to control your own outcome and your own destiny. I think for a good amount of us we thought we were in after the Sweden game until our coach told us we needed to see how Russia did due to the fact we went to overtime and gave Sweden that one point.
“Looking back on it, it’s probably six minutes, eight minutes that cost us in the second period against Russia and you play eight bad minutes in a tournament like that and you’re out of the game. Do I think that we deserved to have moved on? Sure I do. I thought we had a great team. But standings-wise, point-wise, we didn’t do enough as a team to move on. Unfortunately the fun ride had to come to an end. We were all a little bit bummed but I’m excited to get back to Buffalo. I’ve been looking forward to this season for a while now. It’s great to have one season under your belt. You just expect more of yourself every day.”
Expectations are high. They’ve always been high. And Eichel has usually delivered. Which is why it’s easy to forget that Eichel doesn’t turn 20 until Oct. 28.
“Still a young man. Young adult,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said.
The second half of Eichel’s rookie season was his best, once he found his pace, once he found a comfort level and the team collectively was able to execute its new system. Bylsma expects Eichel to pick up from that point, to get even better and to make a decision as to what type of player he wants to be.
“We’re looking at a guy who has the puck on his stick more than anybody else in the game over those last roughly 40 games,” Bylsma said. “I think you’re going to see another level to his game. … The sky’s really the limit for where he can go with his game. … but I also think what’s going to be a determining factor is how he wants to play. I think if he hones in on his game and hones in right where he can be with his shot, I think he can be a massive goal scorer. He may turn into more of a playmaker but I think it’s really where he decides to go with his game. I think that’s going to be the exciting part of what we see this year.”
What does Eichel want? If he has personal statistical goals, he’s not sharing them with the media. But he does have one goal in particular – to be playing meaningful hockey games in March and April and end the Sabres’ playoff drought.
“Obviously there’s goals and numbers in the back of your mind but I think for the most part I think we all have the same one and that’s make the playoffs,” Eichel said. “You could say ‘be in the hunt’ or whatever but I think we have the guys in the room and I think we all believe in ourselves and we have the team to do it.
"Obviously it’s tough. You look at the Eastern Conference and some of the teams in there and how competitive it is but,” the goal is to “be in the hunt at the end of the year. Playing games in March and April and keep going. I think that’s important for us. That’s what this organization wants and that’s what we want in the room. I think anything less than that is underachievement this year for us.”