The spin of a draft wheel in 1970 earned the expansion Buffalo Sabres the right to draft Gilbert Perreault, eventually the face of the franchise and now a Hockey Hall of Famer.
The Sabres’ transformation from afterthought to Cup contender, though, did not occur until Perreault was given two talented, complementary running mates on the top line: Rick Martin and Rene Robert.
The French Connection, immortalized with a statue at KeyBank Center’s alumni plaza, was one of the most feared forward lines in the National Hockey League, accounting for most of the Sabres’ scoring during its seven years of existence. Then came the duo of Alexander Mogilny and Pat LaFontaine, whose wizardry on ice produced a combined 275 points during the 1992-93 season.
No Sabres line since has featured two players with the same blend of otherworldly speed and playmaking ability. Until now.
When the Sabres host the Washington Capitals in front of no fans Thursday night, Jack Eichel, a third-year captain who totaled a career-high 36 goals last season, will skate alongside newly acquired left wing Taylor Hall, the 29-year-old former Hart Trophy winner who shocked the hockey world in October by signing a one-year contract to join the Sabres.
“Having played with Patty and Alex, there are a lot of similarities with Eichel and Hall,” said Matthew Barnaby, a winger with the Sabres from 1992-99. “They will be one of the most exciting duos in the league. And to me, it’s about duos.”
While Eichel has played alongside talented forwards in the past – including Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart – none had the resume or skill set of Hall, a former first overall draft pick who willed the New Jersey Devils to an unprecedented playoff run to win the Hart Trophy for 2017-18.
When Hall was set to become a free agent this past offseason, Sabres coach Ralph Krueger imagined how a potential pairing with Eichel would help both players. Krueger, always effusive in his praise for Eichel, coached Hall in Edmonton from 2010-13 and called the two forwards the only “two players that I’ve coached that have the combination of elite skill and competitive level that is world elite.”
All involved were forced to wait for the top line’s debut in training camp because Eichel missed the first three practices with an upper-body injury. It did not take them long to show why the Sabres could be mandatory viewing for this 56-game season.
“There’s a ceiling a player can get to by himself,” said Brian Burke, former NHL executive and current analyst for Sportsnet. “A great player can only accomplish so much by himself and I’ve always had stars on my teams. I’ve always had more than one. We don’t know what Jack Eichel can be yet. Obviously, he’s one of the top 10 players in the NHL, and I think no one talks about him enough. But Batman needs Robin and to give him an elite winger who can skate with him. What people don’t realize because Jack has such an efficient skating style is how fast he is. He can take three strides and go from blueline to blueline at top speed. He’s a very efficient skater and now to have someone who can keep up with him, make plays and finish plays, it makes a lot of sense for me.”
During the first period of the Sabres’ second intrasquad scrimmage of camp last Saturday, Eichel skated with the puck behind the net and, using his right-handed stick blade, fired a no-look, pass on his forehand and behind him to the front of the net, where Hall one-timed a shot past an unsuspecting Linus Ullmark.
“When players like Jack have the puck, you just want to get open any way possible,” said Hall. “I’ve never scored a goal like that before. I’ve seen it happen many times, but credit to him that he can make a play like that. … He’s a really fun player to play with.”
It’s possible the NHL has not seen Hall at his best. Drafted first overall by the Oilers in 2010, Hall has never skated alongside an elite centerman at even strength or on the power play. His MVP season occurred on a Devils team that was expected to miss the playoffs. Hall’s 93 points were 41 more than any of his teammates and he played most of his even-strength minutes with center Nico Hischier, then an 18-year-old rookie.
Yet, Hall injected the Devils into the playoff race with his 26-game point streak – the eighth player in NHL history to achieve that feat and only the second in 22 years – that included 18 goals and 38 points.
Eichel, then amid his third season with the Sabres, marveled at Hall’s ascent from afar.
“He’s somebody who obviously has super high-end talent, but I think one thing that goes unnoticed is his work ethic,” Eichel said. “He’s able to track down a lot of pucks, he’s hard on the forecheck, he can be physical at times. I think he creates a lot by himself by just how fast he is, how strong he is on the puck. I think it’s going to be really important for our team to get a guy like that.”
The Devils reached the playoffs that season with a 11-3-1 record over their final 15 games, a stretch in which Hall totaled nine goals with 12 assists for 21 points. He finished with a career-best 39 goals, his sixth season of 20 or more. Hall also had six points in five playoff games that spring.
Hall is out to prove he’s still an elite player. He has totaled only 27 goals over the past two seasons because he suffered a knee injury during the 2018-19 season and recovery prevented him from having a proper summer of training ahead of 2019-20.
Eichel’s status as one of hockey’s elite centers was among the primary reasons why Hall chose the Sabres over offers from more established teams. The two have more in common than their desire to win. As one of Hall’s former teammates can attest, the Sabres’ top offseason acquisition, like Eichel, is obsessive about hockey and the pursuit to be the best.
“I think they will complement each other incredibly well,” said retired defenseman Ben Lovejoy, a teammate of Hall’s in New Jersey from 2016-19. “I think Taylor realizes that even if he’s playing at a Hart Trophy level, you still need other players on your team to be successful and his job will be much easier now that he can play on the wing with Jack Eichel.
“The game, so much about it now is speed and Taylor can fly with the best of them, but he’s one of the few players who can skate a million miles per hour at top speed and still make plays. There are a lot of guys in the league, particularly now, that can skate really well. Taylor can make plays going that fast and, when a guy is coming at you with that much speed, it’s incredibly hard to stop as a defenseman and you have to respect that speed coming at you. It forces you to back up and that will open time and space for Jack and their other linemate.”
Last season, Eichel’s primary linemates, Reinhart and Victor Olofsson, were not lacking talent. Reinhart has scored at least 22 goals on four occasions and Olofsson had 20 as a rookie. But Hall is at another level and his arrival should allow Krueger to finally balance the lineup.
Eichel was in the Hart Trophy conversation last winter when he compiled a 17-game point streak in which he scored 16 goals and added 15 assists. The run ended because of an upper-body injury that forced him to miss a game in Philadelphia and his streak was one game shy of Perreault’s franchise record from 1971.
In addition to his career-high 36 goals last season, Eichel had 20 multipoint games and became the first Sabres player in eight years to total at least 30 goals and 40 assists. Before the coronavirus pandemic halted play in March, Eichel was on pace for 42 goals and 93 points, the highest totals by a Sabre since Thomas Vanek (43 goals) and Daniel Briere (95 points) in 2006-07.
“Over the last 24 months, Jack has gotten his game to a different level,” said retired NHL forward Mike Rupp, now an NHL Network analyst. “There’s always going to be the comparisons in the draft with Connor (McDavid). Jack had a really great start to his career, but there was a significant gap between Connor and him for the first few seasons. I don’t think that gap is that wide now. It’s narrowed quite a bit.
“I think Jack is going to be a league MVP some year. … The biggest thing is this team making the playoffs. If (Hall and Eichel) can play together with the speed they have, they’re going to be really dangerous. They’re going to have a great top line.”
Eichel is tired of losing. His comments to reporters in May sparked speculation that he could want out of Buffalo following another dismal season. The losses have worn on the three-time all-star, as he shoulders the weight of a playoff drought in what’s unquestionably one of the top NHL markets in the United States.
Eichel, the second overall draft pick in 2015, has not been able to lift the Sabres into contention. Despite totaling 137 goals and 337 points in five seasons, Eichel has yet to experience the playoffs.
Not a single skater in the Hockey Hall of Fame whose career began in the post-1967 expansion era missed the playoffs in the first five years of his career. Among No. 2 overall draft picks since the Sabres’ expansion season in 1970, only one has played more career games than Eichel without reaching the playoffs: Reinhart.
Now Eichel has a supporting cast that includes Reinhart, Hall, Olofsson, Skinner, former Stanley Cup champion Eric Staal, Rasmus Dahlin and notable young prospects such as Dylan Cozens. Most Stanley Cup champions, though, need multiple stars.
“I was very lucky that I played with some of the best players in the world for a long time and I don’t want to downplay the rest of the talent that was on the Devils, but (Sidney Crosby had Evgeni Malkin),” added Lovejoy. “Ryan Getzlaf had Corey Perry. Other players that I played with had other superstars to complement them. Taylor didn’t have that. Taylor scored 40 or 50 more points than the second point-getter on our team and really carried our Devils team to the playoffs that year. He was so good and is so good and truly all he thinks about is hockey.”
At the end of an unprecedented offseason that included another change at general manager, the addition of Hall has brightened Eichel’s outlook and provided the Sabres with a second superstar talent in their pursuit to bring a Stanley Cup to Buffalo.
“In terms of signing Hallsy, it was obviously an exciting moment for our franchise, for the city,” said Eichel. “He’s in the top caliber of players in our league and MVP for a reason. … I was probably as excited as everyone else was. I think it’s going to be a huge help for us.”