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Mike Harrington: Jack Eichel has to be better and he's not offended by the thought

Take a notepad. Write down a quick list of the Buffalo Sabres’ problems. If you include Jack Eichel, he’s probably well down the list.

To even imply that Eichel has to be better could be called blasphemy. Before reaching for the pitchforks, know that Eichel and I have had this conversation multiple times the last two years. The topic came up again Monday in KeyBank Center.

And Eichel agrees.

Right now, four years into his super-hyped NHL career, Eichel is a very nice player and still carries all kinds of potential. But the Sabres expected a superstar and are now paying him like one. He's not there yet.

That's the way of the NHL world now, where young players are paid long-term extensions on potential so you're not stuck with veterans on overpriced contracts like Anze Kopitar in Los Angeles. But it leads to a situation where Eichel has never played in the postseason, has never had a 30-goal season – and has a higher cap hit than Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos and Alexander Ovechkin.

"There are still a lot of strides to be taken. I want to be an elite, elite player in this league," Eichel said during an insightful 12-minute session with reporters on the Sabres' locker cleanout day. "I want to be the best. There's a long way to go. There's a lot of really good players in this league and I think I can be there with them."

Eichel set career highs this season in goals (28), assists (54) and points (82). He was the Sabres' first 80-point man since 2008. But again, we're talking they expected superstar. They threw an entire season trying to get Connor McDavid but figured Eichel was a close choice 1B. That hasn't happened.

Eichel finished tied for 23rd in the league in scoring this year and tied for 24th in points per game. He was 21st in assists and tied for 28th in goals. Those are not $10 million numbers or remotely close to them.

And Eichel hasn't done enough against good teams other than Toronto. Eichel had 41 points – half his total – against nine nonplayoff teams. The list includes eight points against 31st-place Ottawa plus his totals against Montreal (6), Los Angeles (5), Detroit (5), Philadelphia (4), Minnesota (4), Florida (4), Anaheim (3) and Edmonton (2).

Eichel said his first year as captain was a learning experience, that he did more listening to teammates than he did in the past and leaned on leadership group members Kyle Okposo and Zach Bogosian to help. But there remains a strange uneasiness in the dressing room that's yet to be solved.

Some of it is the team's playoff drought stretching on, as Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen head into that range of 300-400 career games with no postseason trips.

Jack Eichel addresses the media Monday in the Sabres' dressing room. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Ristolainen raised some eyebrows Monday with his comments that players need to call each other out in the room much more than they do. Goalie Carter Hutton seemed to agree with that assessment.

"We have a lot of good leaders who do a good job but there needs to be self-accountability, too. A lot of guys need to be harder on themselves," Hutton said. "I think that's something we can definitely improve on. It's just being honest with yourself. I think you need to grow. I feel like it's a tricky time. You have a lot of younger guys and a lot of these guys have been superstars growing up, right? At times, they've never really had a door closed on them.

"Sometimes you have to understand this league is so hard and every night you need to be able to bring your best game, the best version of yourself. At times, we just didn't have that and it's something we need to find here."

The sense here is Hutton isn't referring to Eichel, who takes losing harder than anyone in the room. As for Ristolainen and Reinhart, that seems to be more of the goalie's message.

Eichel's lone moment of bristling Monday came when Ristolainen's comments were relayed to him.

"You can always say that when things don't go well," Eichel said. "I think if you asked us in November if we had enough accountability when we were winning, you can say, 'Oh, yeah, we have enough accountability.' You can always have more, hold people more accountable. You can say that about anything, any job. You can always be harder on people to be better. That's the nature of the business."

Rasmus Ristolainen laments Sabres' lack of accountability

So where can Eichel improve? Shooting. He took more shots this year, with 392 attempts and 303 on goal, becoming the first Sabre over 300 since Alexander Mogilny 26 years ago. But a shooting percentage just over 9.2 isn't going to cut it. Lots of shots from the perimeter as opposed to the danger zones. And Eichel fired wide 72 times, with plenty of those coming on power play one-timers.

"I definitely took a lot of shots. It's that honing in and bearing down on your chances in front of the net," he said. "Looking back, I can probably name 15 or 20 Grade As this year I'd like to have back. That probably makes me a 40-goal scorer and 100 points."

Where stats and analytics don't register is in how forceful Eichel plays the game. He was dominant the last two games of the season against Ottawa and Detroit, but where was that play the previous weeks when the team was falling apart?

Where is Eichel's work down low on the forecheck or coming back to the defensive end? It comes and goes too often. When are we going to stop seeing terrible body language on the ice or on the bench? Like many of his teammates, Eichel needs to sprint off the ice on line changes and not just cruise into the bench. Watch how the Penguins or Lightning, among others, change lines. It looks a whole lot different than how the Sabres do it.

Four years, no playoffs. No matter how many points Eichel piles up, that's his resume until he does something to change it.

"This is my fourth time doing this with you guys. We don't want to be here," Eichel said of an early April exit interview. "This isn't an easy day for anybody. It's a product of not being good enough. It's not an easy day for us. It's not an easy day for our fans. Our fans deserve more. There were glimpses of some really, really awesome stuff this year. ... It's a city that loves us and they care so much."

Eichel cares too and he’s not just trotting out his numbers. He’s been good in his Buffalo career. Just not good enough. And he knows it.

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