ST. LOUIS -- Fans inside the 3,100-seat Stifel Theatre were able to watch and listen to each NHL all-star answer questions during media day Thursday night.
One group wearing St. Louis Blues apparel wasn’t paying attention when the Metropolitan Division all-stars sat at their respective podiums. The fans were too busy watching the nearby NHL Network set, where Buffalo Sabres captain Jack Eichel was being interviewed.
Among other topics, Eichel teased what he will wear on the red carpet Saturday night ahead of the NHL All-Star Game in Enterprise Center. This is the 23-year-old’s third all-star selection in as many seasons, and he’ll again compete in the fastest skater competition as part of the skills challenge Friday night.
This all-star appearance is different than the two that preceded it, though. Eichel is amid an MVP-caliber season in which he’s on pace for 47 goals, 57 assists and 105 points. He’s already matched his previous career high of 28 goals with 33 regular-season games remaining, a performance that has captivated players from around the league.
“I get the opportunity and challenge to play against him four or five times a year, and you can see him developing every year,” Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said on stage Thursday night. “The consistency he’s had this year, the point streak, is very impressive. You can see how much he means to that team. He’s one of those guys who’s a challenge to play against every night and seeing him at 3 on 3 is going to be very fun.”
Eichel isn’t done, either. A number of all-stars, including Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane, noted that Eichel will continue to improve with age and experience. Though Eichel averaged more than a point per game last season, he’s on a historic pace during his fifth year in the NHL.
The former second overall draft pick could finish with the most goals and points of any Sabre since Pat LaFontaine and Alexander Mogilny in 1992-93. Eichel’s 17-game point streak that ran Nov. 16 through Dec. 17 tied Gilbert Perreault for the longest in franchise history.
The streak began with a four-goal game Nov. 16 against Ottawa and ended Dec. 19 in Philadelphia when an upper-body injury prevented Eichel from playing against the Flyers. He has six multi-goal and 17 multi-point games this season.
“Very impressed with his game,” Kane, a South Buffalo native, said. “He’s another guy that could be up there for a -- if the Sabres ever made the playoffs -- like an MVP-type of situation. He’s a guy that really carries that team and when he’s on the ice, he has the puck a lot. He finds ways to get it back and really drives the play when he’s out there. … He’s definitely an amazing talent.”
All-stars mentioned the herculean efforts and highlight-reel goals. Ottawa Senators forward Brady Tkachuk lamented over Eichel scoring four goals, including two in the second period, of a 4-2 Sabres win. The season highlight-reel also includes a nifty move to beat Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury during a 2 on 1 earlier this month, a penalty-shot wrister to send Buffalo to an overtime win over Edmonton and his toe drag that fooled Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Eichel joined Rick Martin as the only Sabres with at least 20 goals and 50 points in five consecutive seasons to start their careers. Eichel is also the seventh player to represent the team in at least three all-star games, joining Martin (7), Perreault (6), Dominik Hasek (5), Mike Ramsey (4), Phil Housley (3) and Mogilny (3).
Eichel ranks third among all NHL forwards in average ice time per game (22:06) and is shooting 17.2 percent, more than double his rate through 49 games last season. He’s always had elite speed, as New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal noted.
“First glance when you watch him, his skating is second to none in the league,” Barzal said.
During the skills competition Friday, Eichel’s speed will be matched against Barzal, Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, Ottawa’s Anthony Duclair, Philadelphia’s Travis Konecny and Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes.
However, Eichel has also developed his play away from the puck.
Ryan O’Reilly knows Eichel better than any other all-star since the two are close friends and played three seasons together in Buffalo. Like many young centers, Eichel took time to learn the nuances of the position, such as faceoffs and defensive-zone coverage.
O’Reilly, who is regarded as one of the best two-way centers in the league, was impressed by Eichel’s defense when the Sabres played the Blues twice this season. In addition to being the best player on the ice both games, Eichel helped shutdown O’Reilly during the first meeting.
O’Reilly had zero shots on goal with a minus-3 rating when Eichel scored two goals in a 5-2 Sabres win Dec. 10 at KeyBank Center.
“You see how confident he is in his game,” O’Reilly said. “You’ve seen him put the team on his back and take control of a game and make these unbelievable plays. Just dominate. It’s very impressive to see, even in all aspects of his game. Defensively, playing against him the two times, it was so hard. He’s skating, he’s making it difficult on guys. He wants the puck and he goes and gets it. That’s why he’s one of the best players in this league.”
Eichel's play has generated a blend of admiration and annoyance around the league. He has what Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson called "all the tools you could ever want," and his skill set has helped him draw 21 penalties, the third-most in the NHL.
Even Eichel's competition expressed excitement to watch him compete in the 3-on-3 all-star tournament, which begins Saturday night with the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions playing at 8 p.m., Eastern.
The event will be a snapshot of speed, shot and strength that have made Eichel one of the league's best.
"You have breakfast watching highlights and he’s on there every morning," MacKinnon said. "He’s really unique. He’s effortless out there. It doesn’t look like he’s going that fast, but he’s the fastest guy on the ice. Just effortless power. One of the best players in the league right now in general ..."