For a long time in the NHL, having a bonafide number one goaltender was a key component of building a Stanley Cup-caliber team. But while goaltending is obviously still important, the days of having someone like Dominik Hasek, Martin Brodeur, or even Henrik Lundqvist play 65-70 games a season are in the past. With more and more teams employing a platoon approach with their goaltenders, having a number one center has now become the key factor in creating a contender.
Just look at the last decade: teams with franchise number one centermen like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar, and Patrice Bergeron were more often than not the ones hoisting the Cup at the end of the year. Long story short: being a perennial contender becomes a whole lot easier when you have one of those types of players as your 1C.
And that brings us to Jack Eichel.
The captain of the Buffalo Sabres has established himself as a superstar in the NHL, and that showed up in the league’s “official” rankings of the best centers in the league. Eichel placed number six on the list, ahead of names like Bergeron, Malkin, Steven Stamkos, and John Tavares.
But can Eichel reach even greater heights this season? It’s all on the table for the Sabres’ star to cement himself as a top-5 center in the NHL.
Joined at the Hip
For better or worse, Connor McDavid and Eichel will forever be talked about in the context of the other due to the hype that surrounded them in the lead-up to the 2015 NHL Draft. Both players were such sure things that some teams — like the Sabres — were openly tanking in the hopes of guaranteeing a pick near the top of the draft.
McDavid has somehow exceeded the hype of being the best prospect since Sidney Crosby. The Edmonton Oilers’ captain already has a Hart Trophy and two scoring titles to his name before the age of 24, and he has increased his points per game every season (his 97 points in 64 games in 2019-20 would have been good for 124 points over 82 games). He has firmly established himself as the best center — and player — in the world.
His greatness has been such that it has overshadowed, at times, just how good Eichel himself has been. Like McDavid, Eichel has upped his points per game mark in each successive season, notching 78 points in 68 games in 2019-20 (equivalent to 94 points over 82 games).
He, too, has already put together an impressive collection of jaw-dropping plays in his young career. Despite the fact that they play in separate conferences, the McDavid-Eichel comparisons don’t figure to slow down anytime soon.
Stacking Up With His Peers
The top five of the NHL’s list of best centers reads as follows: Auston Matthews (number five), Crosby (four), Leon Draisaitl (three), Nathan MacKinnon (two), and McDavid at number one. You’ll surely notice a theme of the top five: with the exception of Crosby, everyone else is just entering their prime years, much like Eichel.
This new generation of superstar centers will define the game for the next decade or more. So, where does Eichel stack up with his peers?
McDavid is in a class of his own, with an otherworldly 1.34 points per game since he entered the league. However, the other four are very comparable to each other. Eichel’s 0.95 career points per game is marginally better than MacKinnon’s mark of 0.94 and only a bit behind Matthews (1.01) and Draisaitl (1.00). Looking at just the 2019-20 campaign, Eichel (1.15) finished just ahead of Matthews (1.14) while falling a bit farther behind MacKinnon (1.35), McDavid (1.52), and Draisaitl (1.55).
While Eichel is still a ways off from being in the discussion of the top two or three centers in the game, he certainly belongs in the next tier down.
Still Waiting on Team Success
One thing that Eichel and McDavid have had in common on the negative side is their postseason résumés or lack thereof. McDavid has appeared in just 17 playoff games in his first five seasons (averaging 1.06 points per game). Eichel, of course, is still waiting to make his postseason debut.
Both the Buffalo and Edmonton fanbases felt confident that landing a pair of generational players would result in annual trips to the postseason. But both teams have learned the hard way that it takes much more than one (or two) great players to be a consistent contender.
Entering his sixth season, Eichel is already on his third different head coach in Ralph Krueger, after the brief regimes of Dan Bylsma and Phil Housley. He’s also onto his third different general manager, with Kevyn Adams looking to succeed where Tim Murray and Jason Botterill failed.
The constant losing and turnover of Buffalo’s front office have to be taking its toll on Eichel, as evidenced by the myriad trade rumours surrounding the Sabres’ captain.
Eichel isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but one can only put on a brave face for so long. A continued lack of even appearing in the postseason, regardless of his individual performance, won’t help his standing among the game’s elite centers.
Something Different This Season?
This offseason has provided reasons to get excited about both Eichel’s prospects and Buffalo’s prospects as a team. Adams made one of the biggest splashes of the offseason by signing former league MVP Taylor Hall while also bringing in names like Eric Staal, Cody Eakin, and Tobias Rieder to boost the Sabres’ depth up front. Eichel himself has expressed his happiness with the work his new GM has done.
It still figures to be an uphill battle to get back to the playoffs, though, especially considering the league’s proposed divisional format for the 2020-21 season. The Sabres could very well improve as a team and still finish near the bottom of what would be a brutally tough East Division.
But apart from how the team performs, the additions of Hall and Staal, the continued contributions of Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson, and the hopeful resurrection of Jeff Skinner ought to provide Eichel with more offensive freedom and chances to rack up points than ever before.
If he continues on the upward trajectory that has marked his first half-decade in the NHL, and if the Sabres can realistically compete for a playoff spot, there is no reason why come season’s end, Eichel shouldn’t be considered one of the five best centers in the world.