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Mike Harrington: It's still about how far Jack Eichel can take Sabres

This is the season of Rasmus Dahlin, the most talented defenseman the Sabres have drafted since some 18-year-old named Phil Housley showed up here 36 years ago.

It's the season of change, where General Manager Jason Botterill swapped out most of predecessor Tim Murray's big names for some of his own. Exit Evander Kane, Robin Lehner and Ryan O'Reilly. Enter the likes of Jeff Skinner, Carter Hutton, Conor Sheary and Patrik Berglund.

It's a season where we wonder what we'll see from Casey Mittelstadt, Tage Thompson, Alex Nylander and Brendan Guhle, owing to the fact the latter two might not be in Rochester all that long.

But most of all, the Sabres are still about Jack Eichel. It's Season Four for him. They go the places where he can take them. When he's hot, they'll burn up the ice. When he struggles, they will look far too similar to what we saw last season.

Pretty clear bottom line. And it has nothing to do with whether there's a letter on his sweater.

[RELATED: The Sabres have named Jack Eichel captain for the 2018-19 season]

"We worked hard and had a good camp," Eichel said the other day as he sat at his locker in KeyBank Center. "We did a lot of good things, but this is when it starts to count and we have to put it all together. At this point, we've been talking so long. You can talk about new guys and all we've changed and everything, but it's up to us to go out there and put a product on the ice in games consistently."

It will be fascinating to watch Eichel this season. The dynamics are multipronged.

There's the contract, the first season of the eight-year, $80-million extension he signed the night before last season's opener. Frankly, he's being paid for potential rather than production.

Not many people in Buffalo wonder if Eichel is a massive overpay because they expect a megastar. The reality is this: The Sabres are now paying $10 million a season to a player who has not had a 30-goal or 70-point season in his first three years.

(Illustration by Daniel Zakroczemski/Buffalo News)

By putting the money up front, the Sabres are saying they believe Eichel will enter the superstar strata. In fact, they're saying they expect he will be in a group that includes Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux and Jamie Benn.

What do those six stars have in common? Their cap hit this season and for many seasons to come will be lower than Eichel's.

Eichel is only 21. But in hockey, you can be a star that young. It's time for him to break out, the way Taylor Hall did last year in New Jersey and Nathan MacKinnon did in Colorado. Their teams went from last in their conference to the playoffs in one year, largely because their stars became Hart Trophy candidates.

That's the exact road the Sabres are hoping to travel. They will definitely improve – in part because they can't possibly be any worse. But for them to truly take the next step, Eichel has to move up the NHL ladder.

"He clearly put the work in this summer," NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire told me on the network's preseason conference call this week. "His conditioning levels are tremendous. I really think he needs to be that player that you were alluding to, whether he’s Connor McDavid or whether he’s Nathan MacKinnon – a young star that makes a difference.

"I believe he can do that. I know that the coaching staff is expecting him to do that. ... Your point about Jack is bang-on. He's going to have to be that guy – that person that makes a difference in the community both on and off the ice – and I think he can do it."

An anonymous poll of 33 NHL players taken by TSN at the Player Media Tour last month in Chicago saw nearly half pick the Sabres to duplicate what the Avalanche and Devils did last season by making the playoffs. Taking that several steps down the road, the network said, "One Eastern Conference veteran who is no stranger to hardware" predicted the Sabres will be the best team in the NHL within the next five years.

Toronto coach Mike Babcock also raised the bar on the Sabres prior to a preseason meeting last month.

"They should be a good team," Babcock said of the club he nearly signed on to coach in 2015. "I've known Jason Botterill for a long time. He's a good man, a good hockey man and he'll fix things there over time."

The Sabres continue to sell hope as well as any team in the league. It's the Pegula Way. Almost all of it had been used up until those lottery balls landed the right way five months ago in Toronto. Now, anything is possible.

Dahlin changes the dynamic immensely.

"We pick up a franchise defenseman, a really good kid and a really good player," Eichel said. "We're super lucky to have him. It was a huge point of this organization's offseason. With so much negativity around the group last year – and rightly so – winning the draft lottery, selecting a player of his caliber and adding him to the group is something the city and fans needed to bring that excitement back again."

When TSN did its preseason list of the game's top 50 players, Eichel was only No. 33. But a big reason he can break out is his line. In wingers Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart, Eichel has two scoring options at his side and that's something he's never really had. There should be far fewer missed opportunities than in the past.

"It will be interesting to see how that chemistry forms," said Housley. "I like the mix. There's a little skill. Jack is a powerful skater who gets on the forecheck and I like the way they're playing defensively as well."

Said McGuire: "That's all firepower."

With O'Reilly gone to St. Louis, there's no doubt whose team this is anymore. Eichel knows it, too.

"It's a good group of guys, that's for sure," he said. "The environment is different. Guys are excited here and don't really have the sour taste of the last few years so that always helps. There's more enthusiasm.

"I just try to help young guys out and help them along with anything they need. ... I want to lead by example. Make sure I'm working hard on the ice and doing the right things. It's the best way to do it."

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