Perhaps the worst possible scenario unfolded for the Buffalo Sabres in practice on Wednesday. Star center Jack Eichel went down with what appeared to be an apparent leg injury. The reports of the injury and video coming out of practice didn’t look good for the 19-year old. However, the injury may not be as bad as initially feared.
Early reports from TSN’s Bob McKenzie are Eichel was initially diagnosed with a high ankle sprain and would miss at least four to six weeks. The Sabres later confirmed the diagnosis, but would not give a timetable for the center’s return from the injury.
Eichel is perhaps the one player on the roster the Sabres could least afford to lose. It’s certainly a gut punch for the club to lose their top center the day before the season is set to kick-off in practice no less. However, at this time it doesn’t appear his absence will be much longer than the first quarter of the season. At the same time, it’s important to remember that high ankle sprains can be tricky, especially for hockey players. Look no further than Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner who missed three months with the same injury last season and had to eventually undergo surgery to fully heal.
The focus for the Sabres now needs to shift to replacing Eichel’s top six center role in the lineup. It’s not likely any player currently on the roster can give Buffalo the production they would have seen out of Eichel. The Sabres do, however, have some players that can step in and fill the void while the former second overall pick is on the shelf.
The first name that jumps out is second-year forward Sam Reinhart. The 2014 second overall pick played center in juniors and was moved to the wing by the Sabres with Ryan O’Reilly and Eichel occupying the top two center positions. Reinhart also spent some time at center in training camp while Buffalo was without Eichel and O’Reilly due to the World Cup.
The 20-year old has the ability to be a very productive player at the NHL level as we saw in his rookie year last season. Reinhart scored 23 goals and 43 points to the surprise of many. He worked hard to improve his game last season and he put in the work again this summer to attempt to take his game to next level.
Reinhart doesn’t play with the speed and flashes that Eichel provides, but he has a similar vision of the ice, as well as the ability to produce at a high level. The Sabres are lucky to have a player like Reinhart who can step right in and potentially provide similar production to what they’re losing.
Another player the Sabres can consider to fill the void is Zemgus Girgensons. The Latvian native has experience playing top six minutes and did have a productive season a few years ago playing to role of a top six center. If they Sabres want to stick with Reinhart at wing, then Girgensons makes the most sense to step into the second line center role.
Girgensons is on a one-year prove it contract with the Sabres and this opportunity may be just what he needs to prove he’s an important piece to the roster. The former first round pick has played with Evander Kane and Reinhart, so head coach Dan Bylsma would be able to keep that line intact by just slotting Girgensons in.
The emergence of Derek Grant in training camp could be bigger than many anticipated. Johan Larsson and Grant could do the job of bottom six centers while Girgensons moves up into a top six role. If that’s the route the Sabres choose, the anticipated production in the bottom six should remain the same.
The injury to Eichel is certainly a less than an ideal situation for the Sabres, but it could have been worse. Buffalo’s new depth in the forwards will be put to the test right away to prove they can get by without Eichel. As the saying goes, “next man up”.