The reality of being one of the top picks in the NHL is that most often you go to a bottom feeder and it takes time before your club improves.
Nobody knows that better than Jack Eichel.
Eichel, 20, was chosen second overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2015 NHL draft in Florida, right behind Connor McDavid, who went No. 1 to the Edmonton Oilers. While there was never any question who would be selected first – McDavid is considered a generational player – the Sabres got themselves an exceptional prospect determined to do his part to put the Sabres back on the hockey map.
"I don't think of myself as a saviour," Eichel said. "Obviously a lot of pieces have to fit together for a team to become good. We have a lot of good pieces. I just try to be an impact person and player in the locker room and on the ice every day. I try to bring my best as much as I can."
That said, Eichel cherishes the notion of being a go-to player on a franchise that is trying to turn a corner.
"I like to have a big role and I like people to rely on me," said the native of North Chelmsford, Mass. "I think it brings out the best in my game. Just having the mindset that you have to be a big piece of the puzzle can put a lot of pressure on yourself, but it's also a good thing to motivate you."
The curly haired centre was second in Buffalo scoring in his rookie season scoring 24 goals and 56 points in 81 games. That was second amongst NHL rookies. Artemi Panarin of the Chicago Blackhawks was first with 30 goals and 77 points in 80 games. McDavid, who missed a chunk of the season with a shoulder injury, had a higher points-per-game average than both with 16 goals and 48 points in 45 games.
Injury set back
This season, after helping Team North America to an impressive 2-1 record (a goal and two points in three games) in the World Cup of Hockey, Eichel was preparing to help get the Sabres back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after five seasons on the sidelines, when he suffered a serious ankle sprain. He caught a rut in the ice in a collision during a scrimmage and it caused him to miss the first 21 games of the season, putting the Sabres behind the eight ball.
The Sabres were 8-9-3 in Eichel's absence. One can't help but wonder what kind of a good start they might have enjoyed with a healthy Eichel in the lineup. It is worth noting Eichel scored a goal and had an assist in a 5-4 Buffalo victory over the Ottawa Senators upon his return to the lineup on Nov. 29. The Sabres are 7-6-2 since his return and with seven goals and 13 points he leads Buffalo with 0.81 points per game.
Even though he is back playing, Eichel admitted he's not out of the woods where the ankle injury is concerned.
"It's pretty good for the most part, but it's something you still feel and at any time you can tweak it," Eichel said.
Eichel isn't the only youngster the Sabres are banking on to help them improve. Defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen, 21, leads the team in scoring with three goals and 25 points in 37 games, while centre Sam Reinhart, 20, has eight goals and 24 points, also in 37 games.
While the Sabres, who are last in the Eastern Conference, are a long shot to make the playoffs this season, Eichel continues to develop as a player and a leader. He said he is more comfortable in his second season in the NHL.
"More than anything you just assume a bigger role in terms of being a leader," Eichel said. "You try to be better every day whether it's in practice or a game. I just try to make more of an impact on the guys every day. You can't use the rookie excuse anymore. "
Not that Eichel ever did.