The Buffalo Sabres are about to pay huge money for what they hope Jack Eichel can bring them. And NHL Network says the team's payday may be coming.
Eichel has been ranked the league's 14th-best center in NHL Network's ongoing series of player rankings, but longtime former player and current network analyst Mike Rupp has Buffalo's 20-year-old as the player that can make the biggest leap on the list.
"I think he's going to have a similar next season as to what Connor McDavid had this past season -- just an absolute explosion," Rupp said in the episode on centers that NHL Network first aired Sunday night and will have regular repeat runs the next few weeks. ... "We know he's moving in the right direction. He's going to be toward the top of the list next year."
Rupp doubled down on his thoughts on Eichel during a phone interview with The News on Monday.
"The injury was a huge part to Jack's season last year. The high ankle issue is no joke," said Rupp, a veteran of 610 NHL games. "I had one and many guys I've watched have. They're difficult. So for Jack to come back and play at the level he did and even to leading the league in shots per game is awesome and says great things are coming."
Edmonton's McDavid was No. 1 on the list of centers followed by the Pittsburgh duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, then Matthews. Eichel is one spot ahead of Edmonton's Leon Draisaitl, who just signed an eight-year, $68 million contract extension with the Oilers. The Sabres remain in talks with Eichel about a similar eight-year extension at a value believed to be approaching $80 million.
Eichel had 24 goals and 57 points in 61 games last year and averaged 4.08 shots on goal per game, the only player in the league over 4.0.
Rupp said Eichel figures to benefit from having Phil Housley as his new coach because of the way Housley will have his defense corps involved with the offensive rush.
"What Nashville did with their 'D' was amazing and not many coaches are coaching like that," Rupp said. "You don't have to be Drew Doughty to jump in the play or a guy like the Predators have in Roman Josi. They let all their guys get involved and it pays off. They don't have that much offensive power and their D has that next wave of attack. In Buffalo, to me they have far more pieces in front.
"I played with Marco Scandella in Minnesota and I'm excited to see him and Rasmus Ristolainen play that way. Now they're playing with Jack. It's not just Jack and Ryan O'Reilly having to drive the boards. Having those plays set up for Jack will make it more exciting."
Rupp doesn't discount Eichel directing the Sabres into the playoffs in the same vein Auston Matthews did last season in Toronto.
"I was looking at the Hart Trophy odds and Jack was 50-1," Rupp said. "Well, I would take that bet in a second. If he takes that team to the playoffs and puts up 80-100 points, that guy can win the Hart. Now, we don't know if that's going to happen but that's what he can do. Connor McDavid's team went far, Auston's team made the playoffs. Your team adds to it."