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With 'city on his shoulders,' Jack Eichel flourishing in pressure-packed role

ST. LOUIS –Bob Eichel is one of his son's confidants. The two speak on the phone daily and the conversations typically center around Jack's career with the Buffalo Sabres.

Few know the pressure placed on Jack Eichel quite like his father. However, a recent comment by Jack Hutton, father of Sabres goalie Carter Hutton, put the situation into perspective for Bob.

"He says to me, 'I feel bad for your son,' " Bob Eichel recalled. "I said, 'Why? He’s doing alright.' He said, 'He came to Buffalo and they put the city on his shoulders.' I said, 'Jeez, that’s well-put.'"

The Sabres tanked in 2014-15 to earn the right to draft Jack Eichel second overall. What was supposed to be a quick rebuild turned into more years of suffering for Sabres fans. Their playoff drought has reached eight seasons and two coaches have been fired since Eichel arrived in Buffalo.

At 21 years old, Eichel became the youngest captain in franchise history, a role that brings obligations on the ice, in the locker room and in the community. The balancing act can take a toll on players of any age, yet Eichel has learned how to navigate the responsibilities, and in doing so, continues to reveal why the fan base expected him to restore the franchise to what it once was.

"You look at the support system and the people who have been there for you, I’ve started to use more resources and things at my disposal," Eichel, now 23, told The Buffalo News ahead of the NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis. "There’s a lot that comes at you in this profession and my situation. At times, it can be a little overwhelming. Dealing with everything on a day-to-day basis, I think a lot of people are probably a little dumbfounded to the stuff we have to go through on a day-to-day basis.

"It’s past being busy. It’s stuff you carry home with you, whether that’s stress, pressure, anxiety, whatever it might be. I think just trying to find a way to enjoy every moment of this and try to really be yourself. It’s important and that’s what I’m trying to do."

Eichel has achieved superstar status around the National Hockey League. He is on pace for 47 goals among 104 points, which would be the most by any Sabre since Alexander Mogilny and Pat LaFontaine in 1992-93. Eichel already has matched his previous career high of 28 goals with 33 regular-season games remaining.

His 17-game point streak tied Gilbert Perreault for the longest in franchise history and ended Dec. 19 when an upper-body injury forced him out of the lineup in Philadelphia.

Eichel has six multi-goal and 17 multi-point games this season. He joined Rick Martin as the only Sabres players to have 20 goals and 50 points in each of their first five NHL seasons. Yet Eichel was on an MVP-caliber pace last year before missing three games with an injury in January, and he still averaged more than one point per game.

Added strength has equipped Eichel with the ability to outmuscle opponents for loose pucks. He worked this past offseason on improving his shot, as illustrated by his 17.2% shooting percentage through 49 games, and his skating remains among the best in the league.

Sabres coach Ralph Krueger beams when talking about Eichel's evolution as a defensive force on the ice. Eichel attacks loose pucks with the same ferocity in which he drives to the net to score a goal. He continues to round out his game, despite his pressure-packed position within the franchise.

"It’s very difficult," St. Louis Blues center Ryan O'Reilly, a friend and former teammate of Eichel's, said. "That’s a lot of pressure for a guy that age. He’s a mature guy. The way he’s handled it and seeing what he’s doing, it’s so impressive. I’m not surprised he’s playing the way he is because he’s a guy who has so much pride in his own game. He wants to win so bad. He’s doing whatever he can to do that."

Physical maturation is only one reason behind his dominance. Last season was particularly difficult for Eichel. The Sabres won 10 consecutive games, only to endure a historic collapse in the season's second half. As captain, he often was tasked with providing direction amid chaos.

The responsibility no longer falls squarely on Eichel's shoulders. Krueger's command on in-game adjustments and providing a passionate intermission speech has relieved Eichel of some of those duties. He's now able to pick his spots, speaking up when the moment is right.

"He’s an emotional, fiery leader," Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian said of Eichel. "There’s no perfect leader, but I like those kind of people and I like to be around people like that. He’s done a really good job of assessing the situation, saying the right thing at the right time and understanding that no matter who you are, whether it’s him or anyone else, if you say the same thing over and over the message is going to get lost. He's been spot on every time."

Bogosian, Jake McCabe, Kyle Okposo and Marcus Johansson also take on some leadership responsibilities. Eichel is always talking on the bench and on the ice during games, providing teammates with direction on how to execute Krueger's in-game adjustments and explaining what an opponent is doing.

When Rasmus Dahlin was benched in the third period of a 4-2 win over Ottawa on Nov. 16, Eichel wrapped his arm around the 19-year-old defenseman's shoulders during a stoppage in play and delivered words of encouragement. Eichel scored two of his four goals that game in the second period to snap Buffalo's six-game losing streak.

Leading by example is also important to Eichel, especially on a team with inexperienced NHL players. If he's having a difficult period, Eichel shifts his focus to his own game.

"For me, it’s about work every day, bringing a good attitude to the rink and trying to show guys the right things to do," Eichel said. "It’s important that you communicate with Ralph and you’re a voice for the room. You really don’t need to have one with him because he has such a good feel for the room itself. He’s been so good this year. ... For me, it’s about consistency and trying to be myself every day. That’s probably the biggest thing. I don’t try to change my personality or do anything different. I just try to be myself. If it’s time to get serious, it’s time to get serious. If it’s time to have fun with the guys, it’s time to have fun with the guys. I’m just trying to find that fine line."

The on-ice responsibilities continue to grow for Eichel. He ranks third among NHL forwards in average ice time per game and has been tasked with defending opponents' top players. When the Sabres were without Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson before the break, Eichel, along with Sam Reinhart, guided Buffalo to three wins in its final four games.

Conor Sheary, who was a teammate of Sidney Crosby's in Pittsburgh for three seasons, noted that Eichel is typically at his best when facing another superstar. Eichel thrives in pressure situations on the ice. He scored a penalty-shot overtime goal in a 3-2 win over Edmonton earlier this month and his two goals in the third period Dec. 10 lifted the Sabres to a 5-2 win over St. Louis.

Those accomplishments have come with some help. Eichel reaches out to Adam Oates, a Hockey Hall of Famer with whom he trains in the offseason, for advice. In addition to speaking with his father and mother, Anne, Eichel works with a sports psychologist.

"Experience is always a factor as you evolve, if you have the right character and are making the right decisions," Krueger said. "Jack for sure processed his first year of captaincy in a very responsible way through the summer. When I was speaking to him, there was a maturity already in how that responsibility was going to be carried out. ... Jack is embracing that as the ultimate captain and leader of the group. There’s no question the second season for him is going to be different than the first and third will be different than the second."

Eichel became the seventh player in franchise history to represent the Sabres at three NHL All-Star Games, and he entered the event ranked fifth in goals and ninth in points (62). He hasn't been held without a point in three consecutive games since early November.

The Sabres (22-20-7) are 10 points out of the playoffs and have a favorable schedule out of the break. Reliable defense is their foundation under Krueger. However, their postseason hopes may sit on Eichel's shoulders.

"There’s a lot of pressure, there’s a lot of expectations," Eichel said. "It can get to you at times. You have to remember you can only control so much and you can only do what you can do, so that’s kind of the message I try to tell myself every day."

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