By Chris Boyle
Jack Eichel is back.
Like a returning savior, the 20-year-old immediately provided hope for the Sabres‘ once-struggling offense. In a mere 17 minutes, Eichel notched a goal and an assist in Tuesday’s win against the Senators. He followed up that performance with a two-goal effort Thursday in a comeback win over the Rangers.
When a fanbase has invested so much in the future, this type of return acts as a focal point for hope and a Cleveland-level salvation for a team dying for anything resembling championship potential.
Is this a reasonable level of hope to place on Eichel’s shoulders? What type of NHL player can we expect Eichel to be when he reaches his prime? This same cycle envelops every rebuilding team and results in nicknames like “Connor McJesus” and “Awesome Matthews.” These youngsters are the dynamic offensive centers who fans, experts and the front office place championship aspirations on.
Eichel is a game-breaker, but not in the same manner as John Tavares or Taylor Hall … yet. Tavares and Hall are dominant players who are capable of dominating the puck, individually gaining entry to the zone. Both players also create opportunities for their teammates through dominating the slot line and creating a ton of pre-shot opportunities.
When I reviewed Eichel’s play, the player that his game most resembled was Rangers superstar Rick Nash.
If we use Nash’s 2015-16 season as a comparison, their shot distribution is strikingly similar. (Nash shot totals are projected over 82 games). Eichel, like Nash, is a volume shooter and is spectacular at using his speed, and size to gain the zone. He can create high-end opportunities all by himself. The only thing that truly differentiates their numbers is a slightly higher ability for Eichel to produce second-chance rebound opportunities. If we consider that this is a post-prime Nash and pre-prime Eichel, it offers an interesting comparable into the type of offensive player pre-prime Eichel already is.
While a player like Tavares is extremely selective with the puck when he gains the zone searching for teammates, Eichel in his rookie season, opted for lower percentage high-volume shooting from the exterior.
This could be a function of his game in general or it could be a result of the teammates he was continually matched with. Eichel spent the majority of his rookie season with Evander Kane. While Kane has a pretty great offensive toolkit, it is extremely similar to Eichel’s. Too many shifts were spent with each player taking turns individually entering the zone, and firing low percentage shots at the opposition netminder.
During their time on the ice together at even strength, Kane managed to connect with Eichel on only one slot-line pass that led directly to a shot. They operated as separate entities for the majority of their time together. Eichel received five slot-line passes at even strength all season. When presented with these golden opportunities, he converted them at a 40-percent rate.
This forced Eichel into an individual offensive attack, one that limits the potential damage he can ultimately wreak on the NHL. The result was a 6-percent shooting percentage on clear-sighted looks. Even if Eichel never adapts his game in any shape or form, as he matures, he should increase his shot production and still manage a handful of 35-plus goal seasons. If he is paired with a play-making winger in the mold of Mats Zuccarello, who can find him in space for slot line feeds, he will easily move into the 40-plus goal category.
Where Eichel can show signs of improvement is his play-making. With a little more patience with the puck when he enters the offensive zone, holding onto the puck a little longer will draw defenders and open up his teammates for higher quality opportunities. Eichel proved he can operate in small spaces and showed signs of this elite play-making ability as the season progressed. Eichel was responsible for 11 slot-line passes that resulted in four goals the majority occurring after the turn of the new year.
With the acquisition in the offseason of Kyle Okposo, the Sabres may have a player capable of being an effective running mate for Eichel. It will eventually allow him to push past the Nash comparison and move into the Tavares/Crosby/McDavid conversation.
More importantly, it might give Sabres fans the legitimate hope they have been searching for.