April of 2015 wasn’t a great time to be a Buffalo Sabres fan.
The team finished last in the NHL for the second consecutive year. The Sabres’ leading point scorer was Tyler Ennis, whose 46 points put him at 110th in the league. In general, they were a terrible hockey team. However, fans knew that this was about to change thanks to the NHL Draft Lottery.
Because the team finished last, the Sabres were guaranteed one of the top two picks in the 2015 NHL Draft. If they won the lottery, they would have the opportunity to draft Connor McDavid. McDavid, perhaps the most talked about prospect since Sidney Crosby, had been closely watched by the Buffalo faithful for years. The center made a name for himself playing 1.5 hours away from Buffalo in Erie, Pennsylvania.
2015 NHL Entry Draft
Fans weren’t worried about losing the draft lottery, however. They had lost the lottery the year before, there was no way they were going to lose it again. Until they did.
On the evening of April 18, 2015, the Sabres dropped to the second-overall pick. Winning the lottery was the Edmonton Oilers, securing their fourth first-overall pick in six years. The 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres were so bad that they couldn’t even win the draft lottery.
Still, with the second-overall pick, management selected Jack Eichel in the 2015 Draft. Although fans wanted McDavid to be the player to lead their team into the future, the alternative wasn’t awful. Eichel, the consensus second-overall pick, would have been chosen first overall in most other years. The Boston University-standout was undoubtedly a skilled player, but he was still considered a consolation prize after McDavid.
Fast forward to today. Sabres fans are happy with Eichel being their franchise player. The Boston-native has proven that he is one of the most skilled players in the NHL at just 20-years-of-age. However, he seems to be treated as just another player rather than the superstar he has become.
Going into the 2015-16 season, Eichel wanted to prove that he was more than a consolation prize. He wanted to prove that he was the most talented player in the 2015 Draft, one of the best draft classes in recent memory.
Throughout the season, Eichel proved that he came with everything that was advertised and more. The former Hobey Baker Award-winner played in all but one game, finishing with 24 goals and 32 assists. His 56 points allowed him to finish second in scoring amongst rookies, trailing only the Chicago Blackhawk’s Artemi Panarin. Panarin, a 24-year-old who had played five full seasons in the KHL before transitioning to the NHL, finished with 77 points playing on a line with Patrick Kane.
Eichel’s point totals should have made him a lock for a Calder Trophy nomination as the best rookie in the league. He was 19-years-old at the time and was a favorite to win. However, Eichel was not even nominated.
Panarin, Flyers’ defenseman Shane Gostisbehere, and, you guessed it, Connor McDavid were the Calder nominees. Although McDavid missed nearly half of his rookie season with a shoulder injury, he was nominated over Eichel. While McDavid’s 48 points in 45 games was impressive, his nomination was yet another slap in the face to Sabres’ fans wondering what could have been.
Eichel’s Calder snub was an anomaly. The last time a player that finished in the top two in rookie scoring and was not nominated for the Calder was the 2009-10 season. New York Islanders’ center John Tavares finished second amongst rookies in scoring with 54 points but was overlooked. That season’s Calder Trophy was won by Sabres’ defenseman Tyler Myers.
Though it was unlikely that Eichel would have won the Calder had he been nominated in the 2015-16 season, his performance in his rookie campaign should have earned him a nomination at the very least.
Going into the 2016-17 season, the second-overall pick in the 2015 draft seemed like old news. Eichel’s name had been replaced in news cycles by Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine. Matthews had just been selected first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs, becoming a superstar in the league’s most passionate market before playing his first game. Laine was also in the spotlight, coined as the Winnipeg Jets‘ new Teemu Selanne.
It didn’t help that Eichel suffered a high ankle sprain just days before the season started, an injury that kept him off the ice and out of the league’s collective mind until November. His return felt like an afterthought because McDavid, Matthews, and Laine were off to fantastic starts. Although Eichel has 17 points in 23 games this season, he is overshadowed by McDavid and Matthews because of their play and maybe their markets.
In a move that the always pessimistic Buffalo fans could have expected, Eichel is the only one of the four that was not invited to the NHL All-Star game later this month. McDavid, Matthews, and Laine will skate alongside the league’s best, while Sabres fans will watch and think about how they’ve been forgotten yet again.
My argument isn’t that Eichel is a better player than McDavid, Matthews and Laine. Matthews and Laine are both talented young forwards while McDaivd is arguably the best player in the league. But, Eichel deserves more recognition than he is currently receiving. He is a game-changer and is often the best player on the ice. The 20-year-old has the potential to be one of the best players in the NHL, and it’s time he starts being treated that way.