The Buffalo Sabres appear to be getting back a big piece of their lineup. Nothing is official yet, but all signs point to star center Jack Eichel making his season debut when the Sabres face the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night. If he does indeed return against Ottawa, Eichel will have missed 21 games from the high ankle sprain he suffered at practice the day before the season started.
Without Eichel, the Sabres went 7-9-5 picking up 19 of a possible 42 points. The hope was for the club to stay afloat during the rash of injuries over the first quarter of the season. It was by no means pretty, but that objective appears to have been completed.
Going into play Monday night, they sit eight points behind Tampa Bay for third in the Atlantic Division and six points behind New Jersey for the last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
No More Excuses
Now, with Eichel’s return, the focus for the team can shift back to playing the style of hockey they hoped to play prior to the season. They still will be without Tyler Ennis, Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov, but the main players have returned to the lineup in Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly.
I would caution fans to not expect a night-and-day turnaround when the 2015 second overall pick immediately steps on the ice. Coming off of the type of injury he suffered, the 19-year-old will need to be given a few games to get back in the flow of NHL action. I wouldn’t expect Eichel to get his normal 19 to 20 minutes of ice time per game right away. Head coach Dan Bylsma would be wise to slowly work him in to avoid the re-injury, which is a risk with this type of ailment.
However, after a few weeks barring any further major injuries (knock on wood), the injury excuse will be gone for the Sabres. If they continue to lose games and struggle to score more than two goals a game, things may start to get rocky with the fan base. The expectation going into the season was for Buffalo to be a playoff team. Having a nearly fully healthy team now, that expectation is back.
Eichel’s return is not only about what he brings back to the lineup. Of course, the Sabres are getting back arguably their best player and one of the most dynamic players in the league. He’ll provide more team speed and a dangerous scoring threat, both of which they need badly in their lineup.
Eichel will also be an important addition to his teammates. He’ll be an immediate confidence boost to the entire roster with his return. Similar to the letdown we saw on opening night after his injury, every player will probably have a little more jump in their stride against the Senators.
An important benefit that can’t be overlooked is players will now be slotted back into their proper roles at least within in the forward ranks. John Larsson, for example, will go back to being a third line center which is where he’ll have the best opportunity to be successful. That isn’t a slight against a player like Larsson, as he filled in pretty well in Eichel’s absence. At the same time, it was evident that Larsson was not fit to be a top-six guy on a night-in-and-night-out basis.
"We have the skill in here, but other teams have that individual talent. That’s something we were missing when Jack went down." – Foligno
— John Vogl (@BuffaloVogl) November 28, 2016
The Sabres will also finally be able to throw out two dangerous scoring lines for the first time all season. Opposing teams had to mainly worry about shutting down the O’Reilly line, but now the emergence of a full top six changes things. Kyle Okposo, Matt Moulson and O’Reilly will have some pressure taken off of their shoulders. They won’t be relied on as the main source for producing goals.
"I just think you see a little bit of relief for everybody." — Dan Bylsma on teammates' reaction to watching Eichel score in practice.
— John Vogl (@BuffaloVogl) November 28, 2016
Also, Sam Reinhart and Evander Kane will get back their center that they built good chemistry with at the end of last season. Reinhart has seemed to turn things around as of late after a slow start, but he may the player who missed Eichel the most. The duo was very dangerous at the end of last season and was one of the main reasons they played to a 94-point pace over the final 41 games.
The entire organization and fan base have been waiting for this moment the entire season. We’ll finally get a look at what the Sabres truly are as we’ve passed the quarter pole of the season. The games will be more entertaining, but the pressure of winning games will now be at its peak.