What is Jack thinking?

Is Jack Eichel perplexed that he and the Sabres haven’t come close?

Mike Schopp
April 04, 2019 - 11:36 am

Photo: Kevin Hoffman - USA TODAY Sports

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Another sad Buffalo Sabres season closes this week, the team’s eighth straight without a playoff berth and sixth straight without, in the end, hardly a sniff of one.

The Sabres are 23 points out of the last postseason spot in the East with two games left. Last year, they finished 35 points out. In the two years prior, led by Dan Bylsma and Tim Murray, they finished 12 and 17 points behind, respectively.

Compared with their predecessors, Sabres teams led by Phil Housley and Jason Botterill have performed measurably and decidedly worse.

That’s saying something.

It was four years ago this week when Sabres fans nervously watched their team clinch last place in the league – the only thing in the last eight years of Sabres hockey that qualifies as a meaningful accomplishment. We knew then that Jack Eichel – if not Connor McDavid – would be a Sabre.

Eichel has lived up to the supremely lofty expectations of that time. I guess I should say that this is my opinion, but could anyone have a different one? Eichel has established himself as an elite point producer. This is how he was advertised. Comparisons to the game’s other top forwards and other seasons’ No. 1 picks can and will always be made, and that Eichel allows for that says almost everything you need to know about his game.

Yet, four years have gone by and the Sabres are still way out of playoff contention.

I wonder what Eichel is thinking.

Elite players like this should expect to win in the NHL – maybe not the Stanley Cup in your first four seasons, but the playoffs for sure. Is Eichel perplexed that he and the Sabres haven’t come close? Is he exasperated? Is he mad?

I’d assume he’s some part all of those things. If I need to say so, I don’t know Eichel. I made a decision years ago to not pursue relationships with current players. I used to enjoy knowing players on a personal level and came to find that it compromised my ability to speak freely about their play, so I stopped. Besides, I’m 25-years older than Eichel.

It’d be nice to find out what players are thinking from the media, but we know that doesn’t happen either. Guys that haven’t learned yet that honesty can be more trouble than it’s worth, well they’ll learn that soon enough. One time a year or two ago, Eichel was kind of hard on the fans after a loss, and on the air I was hard on him for it. Criticize fans, teammates, managers, even opponents, and you make news. So why bother?

Maybe Eichel’s had an impulse to criticize those around him. Heck, everybody here decided he and Ryan O’Reilly weren’t friendly, and I don’t know if Eichel ever acknowledged that once.

But you’d love to know … does Eichel think he understands why his team is always losing? Does he think it’s effort, or talent, or system, or luck, or anything else? I guess I don’t need him to be right – which is to say, I don’t need Eichel to understand that his teams lose more because they fail to sustain and generate offense, caused in no small part by a surplus of defensemen that can’t transition out of their zone. But it would be at least a little reassuring if he were.

Does Eichel think his opinion matters to Sabres management? Moreover, does it? Eichel got burned two years ago when a rift between Bylsma and himself was reported. It looked to some like he got the coach fired. If Housley is fired, those same people will make the same connection. That’s not really what matters though; what matters is if the Sabres see fit to let their $10 million player into the conversation about the next guy.

Does Eichel think the scene in Buffalo is too negative, as his ex-goalie apparently did? Not knowing him, this all may seem to him like a mountain too tall to climb. The Sabres have tried so many different things in four years, and he’s played well, and they’re still nowhere.

He might think, is winning here even possible?

For all this, fans like us just have to hope that he gets the right messages. The Sabres’ years of losing is one thing but they don’t upend the laws of nature in this sport – that the line between good teams and bad ones is fine, that everything about league structure is designed to lift up the bottom, and that having elite talent is not only better than not, it’s the hardest step in the process.

As one of your fans, Jack, if I knew you I’d just tell you this:

Keep the faith.

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