Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart are inseparable.
They’re housemates in Buffalo and roommates on the road. They sit next to each other on the plane and skate together at the rink.
The plan is to take that partnership to the national level, to become one of those iconic NHL duos that need no introduction. Crosby and Malkin. Kane and Toews.
Eichel and Reinhart.
If they make it, thank Jake McCabe for keeping them healthy.
McCabe, it turns out, is as handy with a spatula as he is with a hockey stick. His teammates are not. McCabe recalls heading to Reinhart’s place last season and watching the player with magical hands fumble the easiest cooking assignment.
“He didn’t even know how to turn on the oven,” said McCabe, who watched flames repeatedly ignite on the stovetop. “He would turn on the stove to try to turn the oven on.”
This season, McCabe lives 50 feet away from Eichel and Reinhart. They can see each other from their patios. More than a dozen times already, McCabe has popped over to make sure dinner was more than cereal or a bag of chips.
"I try to show them around the kitchen,” said McCabe, who noted improvement in Reinhart. “He can cook himself eggs now, cook himself a pasta dish. He’s coming along.”
Eichel believes it’s these moments, far from the ice, that will feed fans who are starving for a championship. It’s great that the Sabres have some of the game’s rising stars, but it wouldn’t mean much if they didn’t like each other.
These guys do.
“That’s more important than the drafts,” Eichel said. “You can get all the players in the room, but if you don’t come together you’re not going to do anything. You come together off the ice, and that translates to on the ice.”
In every stall of the Sabres’ dressing room, players pride themselves on how well they get along. The veterans mingle with the rookies. The Europeans mix with the North Americans. The stars hang out with the role players.
No one is together more than Eichel and Reinhart. They relax in their living room and watch football. They make jokes about each other’s hobbies. They dine on McCabe’s food or find a table at a downtown restaurant. They skate on the same line.
“We’re just trying to find out when we’re going to get a break from each other,” Reinhart said with a laugh. “No, we enjoy each other’s company and are liking the setup.”
The Sabres and their fans hope it’s just the start of a long, beautiful relationship.
Young faces of franchise
The fact 19-year-old Eichel and 20-year-old Reinhart are living together and preparing to improve on impressive rookie seasons is mind-boggling to Brian Gionta. When the 37-year-old was their age, he was camped in a cramped college dorm with six other people. He wouldn’t be an established NHL player for another four years.
“They’re real young guys,” the Sabres captain said. “To be able to handle what they’re handling and go about their daily business, it’s pretty special.”
On one level, Ryan O’Reilly can at relate to what the duo is going through. The center jumped right into the NHL after his draft, so he understands the whirlwind. But O’Reilly was a bit player in Colorado, not the young face of a franchise.
“These guys are much more established,” O’Reilly said. “It’s already amazing what they’ve done.”
What drives Eichel and Reinhart is the belief they haven’t done anything yet.
“Last year, I feel like I was dipping my toes in a little bit,” Eichel said. “I expect more out of myself. I think everybody does as well. This is Year Two, and I just want to be better every day and more consistent.”
The question is what should people expect during the duo’s second season. Eichel recorded 24 goals and 56 points last year. Reinhart had 23 and 42. History shows they could be in for a fun ride. Of the 16 forwards taken with the No. 2 pick since 1990, 12 bettered their stats during their second full year.
• Tyler Seguin soared from 11 goals to 29, and his point total rose from 22 to 67.
• Jason Spezza’s goal total jumped from seven to 22, and his points leaped from 21 to 55.
• Dany Heatley scored 26 times during his first year, then exploded for 41.
• Evgeni Malkin shined as a rookie with 33 goals and 85 points, and he blew those away with 47 and 106.
Other improvements were marginal, but they were improvements nonetheless. The only alarming drop-off was by Jordan Staal, who dipped from 29 goals to 12.
“The bumps for some players have been the expectation that it’s going to be easy,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “They don’t put in the work. They don’t put in the attention to detail to their game. They think, ‘I’ve been here. I’ve done that,’ and they think the success is going to happen again for them.
“I expect both these guys to go the other direction. I expect them both to take another step in their commitment to the game and their work in the game. I don’t think we’re going to have a conversation about a sophomore slump.”
Reinhart can take a step forward by starting well. He had just one goal in his first 11 games. He gained his footing alongside O’Reilly, then finished strong next to Eichel. After becoming linemates with 18 games remaining, they combined for 12 goals and 29 points.
“I’m in the same boat as everybody else in this city,” Reinhart said. “I want to see what we can build upon from last year.”
Eichel’s agenda for improvement includes letting opponents know he’s there. Though the 6-foot-2, 198-pounder is one of the strongest Sabres, he registered just 43 hits in 81 games. Small-statured Tyler Ennis, by contrast, hit 30 people in 23 games. Eichel believes a few more bumps along the boards will change things in the middle of the ice, where his speed is unmatched.
“If I can be a little harder to play against, be a little more physical, I think that will open up some room for me,” Eichel said. “The goals, assists and personal success will come after working hard. I think that physicality part of my game can get up a little bit. Being harder to play against in our own end and just being a little tougher will help me on the offensive side of things.”
Friends in a hurry
Eichel and Reinhart established themselves differently with the Sabres. Eichel scored in his debut, delivered arm-raising goal celebrations and showed unteachable talent. His smile and voice quickly enhanced the dressing room.
“He’s a fun-loving guy,” Gionta said. “He’s a jokester in the room. He’s the first one to crack something. He jumps on it pretty quick.”
Reinhart’s tryout in 2014-15 lasted just nine games. He started slow last year, then quietly began tipping pucks and worked for everything he achieved.
“You can just tell he’s a worker and wants to get better,” said O’Reilly, who served as Reinhart’s post-practice mentor. “You can tell by his character. Since Day One we saw that in him. He wants to make himself better, and he’s an elite player. There’s only more to come.”
While Reinhart was more reserved than Eichel in public and the dressing room, the duo noticed similarities. They quickly became friends.
“Our personalities are a little more similar than you think,” Eichel said with a mischievous grin. “I show my personality more than he does. He’s more of a quiet and contained guy. I’m the same way around everybody, so I show my personality on a day-to-day basis more than he does.
“But for the guys that get to know him, when you’re around him and you know him pretty well, when he’s pretty comfortable in his environment, he’s pretty outgoing.”
Reinhart laughed often during training camp while displaying a contagious smile and welcoming attitude. Of course, people in the dressing room had to wait to see it. He remains one of the last guys off the ice.
“You wonder, ‘What’s the difference between them and me?’” said Sabres prospect Justin Bailey, who at 21 is in the same age group. “Both guys are very meticulous in things they do. They’re very detailed. They do everything the correct way.
“We know what their skill sets are. Some of that’s God-given, some of that’s stuff they worked on. A lot of it’s just the habits they create in practice.”
Though it’s easy to remember the goal-creating chemistry Eichel and Reinhart showed at the end of last year – a spinning cross-ice pass against Minnesota, rushes to the net against Carolina and the New York Rangers – Reinhart recalls it didn’t come easily.
"We didn’t have the chemistry right away from an on-ice standpoint,” he said. “We kind of had to work into that. Over time, that just was kind of built into our games. We were finding each other more.”
They’ll have no trouble finding each other this season. Eichel will be at center, Reinhart will be his wing man. After leaving the arena, they’ll head home together.
They barely discussed their living arrangements before moving in. Like on the ice, they instinctively knew where each other should be.
“It was, ‘Hey, you want to live together?’” Eichel said. “We found a place like the next day.”
While Reinhart was on his own last year, Eichel lived with Matt Moulson and his family. It worked out as planned. The Moulsons eased Eichel’s transition to the NHL by taking care of the day-to-day chores.
“I think it’s going to be a little bit different year for him,” a smiling Reinhart said.
Eichel will certainly have more household tasks. Both want more responsibilities at the rink. They want to score like Malkin and Sidney Crosby. They want to captivate a fan base like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
They want to become the guys who turn a few years of suffering into a lifetime of positive memories.
“Obviously, it would be pretty special,” Reinhart said. “To do something like that, we know it’s going to take a lot of work. There’s no question we both want that and everyone kind of wants that. We know the work that needs to be put in to accomplish that.”
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Eichel said. “You’re talking about four of the best players in the world. Me and Sam both want to be impact players.
“I’ve been looking forward to the season. I’m really excited. I think as a group we’re all excited. We got pretty close last year and all enjoy being around each other. I’m just excited for another long year with them.”