During the offseason, the Buffalo Sabres’ captaincy was one of the most fiercely debated topics. A vast majority of the fan base felt that Ryan O’Reilly and Jack Eichel were the only viable options on the roster.
O’Reilly supporters cited his veteran experience and leadership ability. Since arriving in Western New York, he has served as a mentor to younger players, organizing players-only practices for those who wished to put in extra work. An even larger contingent of fans believed that the Sabres should just cut to the chase and let Eichel wear the “C” given his status as the face of the franchise. Both sides presented valid arguments.
In a relatively unpopular move, the organization decided to hold off on naming a captain, instead rolling with four alternates to start the season. On a squad that has lacked a much-needed singular voice in the locker room, the Sabres have floundered in obscurity at the bottom of the league standings. Despite their struggles the Sabres have finally shown signs of life with three consecutive wins for the first time in nearly a calendar year.
With 25 points in his last 16 games, Eichel’s production has been the catalyst for a Buffalo team that looks to build momentum heading into next season.
The Eichel Effect
Though the Sabres rank dead-last in goals for, Eichel has been involved in nearly half of their 105 tallies this season. In fact, with 45 points he leads the league in percentage of team goals that a single player has contributed to.
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) January 23, 2018
Even more amazing is the effect he has had on his linemates. After months of playing musical chairs with the Sabres’ depth chart, Phil Housley has left Kyle Okposo on Eichel’s line where his production has increased significantly after a rough start to the season. In eight games since being promoted to the first line, Okposo has registered 10 points.
Conversely, since being moved away from Eichel’s left side, Evander Kane has cooled off following a white-hot start to the season. With 36 points in his first 39 games, he has registered a single assist in his last 10 contests. The same goes for Sam Reinhart, who spent a vast majority of last season attached to Eichel’s hip. This year he has struggled mightily and is currently on pace for the lowest point total of his NHL career.
As a result of his spectacular production, Eichel participated in his first career NHL All-Star Game this past weekend in Tampa Bay.
A Different Demeanor
As it became increasingly clear that the Sabres would fail to contend for the playoffs last season, there was a noticeable change in Eichel’s demeanor on and off the ice. Not only was he standoffish in his post-game interviews, he appeared to coast at times, taking shifts off. A growing level of frustration came to a head following his locker room cleanout-day press conference.
Soon after, he began to receive more than his fair share of criticism for his role in a locker room that had become toxic under former head coach, Dan Bylsma. After Bylsma was relieved of his duties, reports surfaced of a disconnect between the two men, causing some to refer to Eichel as a “coach killer.”
These reports were quickly refuted by Eichel’s agent, Peter Fish.
“You can go on all 30 teams and there are no perfect relationships, there are bad nights and good nights,” said Fish. “I think he’s very taken aback by this right now. He’s like ‘Wow, I can’t believe this was actually being said and is out there.’”
Whether or not there was any truth to the initial report remains unknown. Regardless of the alleged divide between he and Bylsma, Eichel has composed himself as a consummate professional despite the Sabres struggles this season. As one of the few players in Buffalo who consistently turn in a full, 60-minute effort, he has done a fantastic job of leading by example.
It is clear that the 21-year-old has matured as both a hockey player and person. There should be no lingering doubt as to whether or not he is ready to assume the role of captain. Even the most skeptical fans who referred to him as a crybaby or prima donna last season can’t help but be impressed by his newfound maturity.
Why Name Eichel Captain Now?
An argument can be made that the Sabres should wait until the offseason to give Eichel the captaincy. With infinitesimal playoff hopes, the 2017-18 season is all but lost, so why not wait?
Believe it or not, the Sabres have shown signs of life as of late. With wins in three of their last four contests, Housley seems to have finally found the right forward combination to keep the team on an upward trajectory.
While a majority of fans are understandably focused on landing a high draft pick, the organization would benefit greatly from ending the 2017-18 campaign on a positive note. While it may hurt the Sabres’ odds of obtaining a lottery pick this summer, supporters of the blue-and-gold should be rooting for the their winning ways to continue for the remainder of the year. That being said, now is the perfect time to let him take the reins and fortify his role as the unquestioned leader heading into next season.
The best move for both Eichel and the franchise as a whole would be to make the announcement after the All-Star break. With a great deal of roster turnover expected to take place in the offseason, it would be wise to allow him time this season to settle into the role.
The announcement is coming, whether it be now, or six months from now. There is no benefit to waiting. This is Eichel’s team, and there is no time like the present to establish leadership stability on a roster that desperately needs it.