Every Buffalo Sabres fan knows so many different forms of pain and frustration. Due to the many years of incompetent management or ownership, rough trades that never worked out, free agent signings that were not productive, young players not developing, and the many cases of star caliber players leaving, or being traded. The early “tank years” for the Sabres had very little to them for on ice performance, but the 2015 draft was supposed to bring all of that to an end.
Jack Eichel was drafted by the Sabres second overall after they lost the draft lottery to the Edmonton Oilers, and while Sabres fans will forever mourn the fact that Connor McDavid never put on a blue and gold sweater, Jack Eichel was the consolation prize. There was hope for the future. There was talent on the roster. Everything seemed to be improving. The Sabres had their franchise player poised to lead them out of the bottom of the standings, but fate had other plans.
After six seasons with the Sabres, Eichel asked for a trade after he and the team could not come to an agreement on the direction of the team, or the direction of his needed surgery. This led to him being traded to the Vegas Golden Knights for Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs, and a couple of draft picks. His time as captain and face of the franchise was over. While his departure was anything but smooth or pretty, there are a lot of great things that can be remembered about “Captain Jack” in a Buffalo uniform. Let’s have a look at some…
Eichel’s First NHL Goal
Scoring as a rookie, especially a top rookie who is meant to lead a franchise is particularly tough. Eichel made his NHL debut against the Ottawa Senators on October 8, 2015 and he had a fantastic first goal against current Sabres net minder Craig Anderson.
I remember the excitement and chills that went down my spine watching the game. Eichel put his skill on full display and set the tone for the types of goals he would be known for scoring while in Buffalo. Throughout the game he didn’t look amazing on every play, but he was still the most talented player on the ice for the Sabres. Every time he was out there, he was their best option to bury the puck.
Tormenting the Maple Leafs
Just about every player in the NHL has that one team they thrive against; that team they just seem to pick on any time they play against them. While in Buffalo, Eichel had a particular talent for outplaying superstar Auston Matthews and putting up a lot of points against the Toronto Maple Leafs. In the span of 17 career games against them, Eichel has amassed 14 goals and 23 points, along with a total of 80 shots on net. His next highest shot total versus another team is 67, and that is against the Philadelphia Flyers, who he has scored only eight goals and 15 points in 16 games. The only other team he has more points against is the Senators at 11 goals and 26 points, but considering the longtime rivalry that the Sabres and Leafs have, it was beyond satisfying to watch him dominate them and stomp on them.
One goal in particular that stands out from when he played the Leafs was when he did his “sit down” goal celebration to the opposing fans in the front row of a Sabres home game.
He was all in. He was engaging with the hometown fans to hype them up every time the rival Maple leafs were in town, and it was written all over his face (and his gameplay) that he took beating Toronto more seriously than almost any other team. It made watching Sabres games against Toronto more than bearable. It was exciting knowing that Eichel was about to tear into them with every last bit of effort he had, and it was nothing short of refreshing and just plain fun.
The 17-Game Point Streak
Eichel made his skill and prowess known to the league in a big way in 2019. Through the course of 17 games, he dominated the scoresheet with 16 goals and 15 assists for a total of 31 points from November to December of the 19-20 season. He spent two months picking goalies apart and making a huge case for Hart Trophy candidacy at that time.
The Sabres had not had a player of that quality in a few years. Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville were gone, and nobody else really had the ability to make those highlight reel plays on a regular basis. It was a sign of the many more to come from the young center.
Eichel’s First Hat Trick
When you’re a goal scorer, getting a hat trick is not only a career aspiration, it’s a personal expectation. Eichel had shown he could score when he really wanted to, but he wasn’t able to get his first career hat trick until 2017 versus the Carolina Hurricanes. The three-goal performance by the stud center wasn’t just a throwaway set of goals either. His hat trick completed a third period comeback by the team to tie up the game with just about 10 minutes left. The first goal was a rebound tap in, the second was a great shot through a screen, and the third one was a signature use of speed and power to get to the side and roof the puck behind Cam Ward.
This wouldn’t be Eichel’s only hat trick in his career, and the second one was even more impressive than his first.
Eichel’s Four-Goal Game Carries the Team
The second time Eichel scored a hat trick, he singlehandedly stole a game for the Sabres. While the rest of his teammates could not find the back of the net, or anything close to it, Eichel decided to take it upon himself to win the game; this time against the Ottawa Senators.
Community Work for the City of Buffalo
Getting involved in the local community is a hallmark of top-end Buffalo sports talents. The NFL’s Buffalo Bills have their All-Star quarterback Josh Allen, and his famous hospital wing at Oshei Children’s Hospital in honor of his grandmother is a perfect example of how much community involvement is integrated into the Buffalo sports culture. Eichel was no exception to this, and embraced the spirit of the people of Buffalo from the moment he arrived.
He had so many cases of visiting children at the hospitals, as well as doing community outreach to get more kids involved in hockey. One of his biggest community contributions came amidst the COVID-19 pandemic when he and fellow teammate at the time, Jeff Skinner, donated 5000 face shields to Buffalo area hospitals. On top of that, he donated around $53,000 to a fund that was to help with additional COVID relief efforts in the area.
Eichel took the role of captain and as the face of the franchise to heart. He gave so much time and effort to the team, and the people who supported it.
Eichel’s Legacy Left Behind
Jack and so many other Sabres tried and failed to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs during the current drought, but it wasn’t because his numbers weren’t good enough, or that he underperformed. Eichel finished his Sabres tenure with some impressive stats, and would have been on pace to own many (if not all) team scoring records if he remained there for his career as many originally hoped.
He scored a total of 138 goals and 216 assists (355 points) in 375 games played. His best season was the 2019-2020 COVID shortened season when he had 36 goals and 42 assists (78 points) in 68 games. That was the closest year they had come to reaching a playoff position, and with the format for how the playoffs were done that year, the Sabres missed the cutoff by 2 points behind the team they were supposed to play on the night the season was shut down, the Montreal Canadiens.
Eichel may have shown some less likable parts of himself throughout the course of his injury and trade saga, but the fault for the failures he experienced prior to his departure lies with Sabres ownership and management, along with former head coach Ralph Krueger at the end. There was a lot of drama and frustration from his end, the team’s end, and the fans’ end. This definitely left a sour taste in fans’ mouths, but it doesn’t seem to have sullied his view of the city. In a few interviews Eichel did during his return to Buffalo pressers yesterday, he made it very clear that he holds no hostility, and that there is, “No bitterness,” towards the team, or the city. In fact, he was also very clear that he wishes things did go better.
As a longtime Sabres fan, I too understand the sentiment of fans that don’t like how things played out. I would have loved to see Captain Jack play his entire career for Buffalo, and bring home a Stanley Cup with Sam Reinhart and so many others. As a hockey player, he is still one of the most talented centers in the league, and watching him play here was a privilege that won’t soon be forgotten.
So when Eichel takes the ice tonight for the Vegas Golden nights in front of the Sabres faithful, there will undoubtedly be many there that will shower him with “boos”. I will not be one of those people. The legacy Eichel left behind may not have been the one the fans hoped for, but it was one that gave them hope along the way. Now with the future of the franchise in the hands of Rasmus Dahlin, Alex Tuch, Owen Power and so many others, the Eichel era is passed. The only thing left to say on the matter is from the bottom of my heart.
Jack Eichel… Thank you for everything you did for this team and this city.