Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill promised a multitude of changes in the Sabres locker room at his 2017-18 season-ending press conference. Heading into training camp, there are almost a dozen new faces. New to the Sabres are goaltender Carter Hutton, forwards Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary, Tage Thompson, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, and Rasmus Dahlin and several high-end blue-line prospects.
Finishing 31st was unacceptable. Jack Eichel has been around the league long enough to know that change was imminent. The NHL is a results-driven business and the Sabres weren’t having success.
Eichel said as much to The Athletic; “Whenever you have as little success as we did last year, changes are bound to happen, and I think it’s a good thing. We’ve got a lot of fresh faces that don’t really have the sour taste of last season and the two seasons before with them.” (from ‘Jack Eichel ready to help lead a locker room of new faces after the Sabres’ summer of change’, The Athletic – 8/9/18)
Leadership and Captaincy
The Buffalo Sabres’ last captain was Brian Gionta in 2016-17. The organization has been afraid to stitch the ‘C’ on a jersey. Now, for a team that’s missed the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons due to questionably accountability and spotty effort, leadership is sorely needed. Goal scoring can be accomplished by committee, but leadership must come from individuals. A captain will give the team much-needed focus.
Just naming a captain isn’t going to make this team something it isn’t. Facts are facts — they have been a bottom-dwelling draft lottery team. Over the past seven years, they’ve done nothing but lose despite multiple coaches and GMs.
A year ago, a swirling question was whether Eichel or Ryan O’Reilly would be named the Sabres’ captain. Botterill and head coach Phil Housley ultimately chose neither, opting for a rotating group of alternate captains, including Eichel, O’Reilly, Zach Bogosian and Kyle Okposo. Neither Botterill nor Housley has stated if they’ll continue with the “leadership group” or award the ‘C’ to one of their players. Change must visit this issue just like it came to the faces in the locker room.
Meet your assistant captains! pic.twitter.com/JKy6y7ifY7
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) October 5, 2017
O’Reilly has been shipped out of town. “I think it needed to happen,” Eichel said recently. “Whenever you have as little success as we did last year, changes are bound to happen, and I think it’s a good thing.” (The Athletic – 8/9/18)
Sabres Captain Options and Concerns
Eichel, the Sabres’ first pick in 2015 and points leader since, is the obvious candidate to be named captain for the 2018-19 season. However, Eichel doesn’t have to be the captain of the franchise to be the face of the franchise. Being a top pick doesn’t always equate to being a leader nor the best option for the long-term.
Wait For The Kids to Develop
With so many new faces and skilled prospects – Brendan Guhle, Casey Mittelstadt, Rasmus Dahlin – making their way to the NHL, one idea is to hold off to see how they mature as things play out. A leader could blossom from the influx of youth and talent on the unestablished roster. If Botterill doesn’t feel he has someone ready to take the captaincy with appropriate gravitas and gusto, perhaps he would be smart to wait another year.
Eichel could very well have a long, successful career and yet never develop into captain material. Trying to fit a square peg into a round hole just for the sake of filling the hole can lead to worse results than leaving the hole empty. Giving him the captaincy now, then taking it away to try to give it to somebody else in a couple of years is a scheme promising disaster.
Dahlin, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018 comes across as composed, thoughtful and honest. After being chosen first overall, Dahlin stayed at the draft to introduce himself to all the other Sabres’ selections. It was a classy, professional move. He is humble yet confident and mature beyond his years. If he has the immediate on-ice impact that Western New Yorkers hope to see, perhaps he will deserve to wear the ‘C’ in short order.
Go With a Veteran
Another idea floating around is to give the ‘C’ to veteran Jason Pominville, or another veteran. The upcoming season is the final year of Pominville’s contract. He’s a former Sabres captain — a quiet leader with hard-working habits. While Eichel and the young talent mature another year, an experienced player could temporarily fill the void. Pominville is liked by the fans and he interacts well with the media. And at 36-years old, he knows that this is likely his last year with the Sabres, perhaps his last in the league, moving the captaincy to another player in a year would not be a tumultuous event in the locker room.
There have been suggestions about making Kyle Okposo the captain this year. The right winger is a consummate teammate — respected, professional, well-liked and well-spoken. He’s good with the public and the media, and never shies away from giving his all. Unlike Pominville, he has a hefty contract that runs for four years beyond this season. Okposo could fill the bill by stewarding the Sabres to a wildcard race. He could mentor the younger players while still near his prime, then pass the position as the team completes the transition to a regular playoff competitor.
The Combo Captain Platter
It’s easier for a coach to hand out the ‘C’ than to take it away. The Sabres could go with co-captains; perhaps both a veteran and a talented youngster. It might be a way to focus the leadership without diluting it and provide a smooth path forward. Co-captains worked well in Buffalo from 2005-07 when the tandem of Chris Drury and Danny Briere led the Sabres to the Eastern Conference Final.
It’s Eichel’s Team
Though he doesn’t wear a ‘C’ stitched to his sweater, the Sabres are Eichel’s team. When a goal is needed, he’s the one the players lean on and fans want to see coming over the boards. Hopes are pinned to Eichel to turn the franchise around. One fan even noted, “From the moment he was drafted, the Sabres wagon was destined to be hitched to Eichel.”
It appears that Jack is ready to make the next step to become Captain Jack. Over the past three years, Eichel has matured tremendously. His post-season comments alone show that. He sounded very mature–like a leader–with every successive interview.
Sabres' GM Jason Botterill said Jack Eichel matured a lot this year and they view him as a big leader for this team.
— Heather Prusak (@haprusak) April 11, 2018
Eichel still gets upset and doesn’t always hide his anger. He can be prickly and pissed off. While this can be a negative if overdone, the honesty and the passion are positives. Fans want their captain to be sick of losing and not tote a moping, pathetic party line. Some fire and emotion are crucial to leading a team and setting expectations.
All in for Eichel
It’s popular opinion that the best player on a team should be its captain. Jack’s impact on the scoresheet is obvious. For now, Eichel is the team’s best player as well as the face of the franchise. Because this is truly his team, making him captain is the next step in the process. The franchise should stop over-thinking things and give him the captaincy. He’s the only real option to be the captain.
By no means is Eichel a perfect leader yet. He has led this team of underachievers nowhere in his three years. It’s unfair to lay that burden squarely on his shoulders, but it’s time to turn the team over to him and let the chips fall where they may. While he had several multi-point games, there were nights he was just ordinary, when the eye-test questioned his drive.
It’s time for him to strap this team on his back and lead it to new ground. He wants to be the catalyst that ends the franchise’s longest postseason drought. He’s turning 22 and about to enter the prime of his hockey career. He’s hungry. And Botterill has compiled the best Sabres roster that he’s seen. It’s time for Eichel to lead the troops into relevancy.
Related: The Sabres Seismic Culture Shift
The Eichel Era
The four-alternate-captain system is no longer acceptable for this team or its fanbase. It’s not a time to wait and see who’s going to lead this team. The Sabres have committed eight years and $100 million to Eichel. Enough of the indecisive, uncertain wishy-washy nonsense that winds up getting mirrored on the ice and in the standings. Stitch that ‘C’ on his jersey this year. It’s time.
“Obviously, I need to influence the room in a positive way and do the right thing,” said Eichel. “More or less, it’s just come to the rink, be a pro, push this team in the right direction and obviously stepping up and being The Guy.” (The Athletic – 8/9/18)
The franchise center is really excited about the huge additions of Sheary and Skinner. He’s pumped to have Dahlin’s on the team’s blueline, having called him shortly after Dahlin exited the draft stage and spending some time with him before the Sabres development camp. And he’s thrilled to start a new chapter wearing No. 9 for the Sabres — the same number he wore while winning the Hobey Baker Award for Boston University in 2015.
What remains to be seen is whether Eichel will have a new letter to go with his new number on his sweater come October.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”