Editor’s Note: All quotes via Sabres.com
Last season, Jack Eichel demonstrated his leadership qualities both on and off the ice.
Although the Sabres have yet to name a captain - or any alternates - for the 2018-19 season, it certainly seems like Eichel has matured and is coming into training camp, and the season ahead, with the potential to wear the ‘C’.
When Eichel spoke to the media at the opening of training camp, he was eloquent and well-spoken. He spoke for almost ten minutes and was both professional and focused on the season ahead, but also showed his lighter, fun side - the side that reminds you that he’s still only 21.
It all starts, he said, at this weekend’s camp.
“You want to create something in camp,” he said. “You want to create a culture... an identity as a group.”
“There’s a lot of new people in here, I think there’s a new mindset,” Eichel added. “There’s a new standard, and I think you’ll see a different group of guys with the way we conduct ourselves, the way we handle ourselves.”
Among those newcomers: centers Patrik Berglund, Jeff Skinner and Vladimir Sobotoka; winger Conor Sheary, defensemen Rasmus Dahlin ad Matt Hunwick, and goaltender Carter Hutton.
There is also a slew of youngsters who could make a push for the regular season roster, like Rasmus Asplund, Sean Malone and Alex Nylander. That depth, Eichel noted, will foster a sense of competition that will benefit the team as a whole.
“The depth and competition within spots on the roster is higher than it’s been the last few years,” he said. “There’s a lot of skill, a lot of really good young players that have been throughout the organization. I think they’re going to push people for spots.”
While Eichel was clearly optimistic about the new season, he was also honest about expectations, noting that it’s a ‘process’ and that ‘it’s not going to happen overnight.’ He also noted the parity throughout the league and said that the Sabres are ‘trending in the right direction.’
“There’s a lot of good energy in the building; guys are excited about the year,” he added. “All the way trickling down to trainers... I think everyone knows we can be a much better team, a much different team.”
“I think we see our potential asa group and there’s plenty of steps that we have to take. This is step one - just get through camp, have a good camp, and come together as a group.”
Naturally, Eichel was asked the acquisition of first-overall draft pick Rasmus Dahlin.
“We’ve picked up a franchise defenseman and a really good kid,” Eichel said. “We’re super lucky to have him. I think it was a huge point of this organization’s offseason. With so much negativity around the group last year - and rightfully so, we had a tough season - but with the draft lottery, and winning it... being able to select a player of his caliber, it’s something that I think the city as fans needed.”
Eichel called Dahlin one of the league’s ‘really great young players,’ who helps to bring back the excitement to the city of Buffalo its its fans. He also noted that he followed some of the recent NHL Prospects Challenge in Buffalo, which Dahlin was a part of.
“We had a bit of a letdown last year, and our fans stuck by us, so it’s good that they’re excited,” Eichel said.
The fans are excited, the players are excited - everyone seems poised and ready to put last season behind them and move forward with the approaching season.
Finally, Eichel spoke to the team’s relationship with management, including general manager Jason Botterill.
“He’s done a lot of communicating with us in terms of seeing our side of things, and trying to figure out what management can do, what coaches can do, to make our relationships as men better,” Eichel said. “They’ve gone a wonderful job.”
“That’s one of things I feel more confident about now than I have ever been,” he added. “I think there’s that open line of communication and you feel like if you have something that’s bothering you, you can get it off your chest, if you think we need to change something around the room, whatever it may be.”
He also spoke about a positive relationship with head coach Phil Housley, a key factor in the team’s future success.
“You look at the teams who are successful year after year,” Eichel said. “It’s that open line, that player-coach relationship, instead of battling wit them. Obviously you’re not going to agree on everything, but I think we’re taking a lot of right steps.”
While providing such eloquent, well-spoken responses, Eichel also managed to keep things light. At one point, he started off a response with a chuckle as he said “There’s always going to be excuses; we’re professional complainers.”
When a media member asked him when he developed a sense of humor, Eichel retorted: “I’ve had it, I just don’t have it with you guys,” and a laugh.
After all — he is only 21. Regardless of whether or not he does end up wearing a C on the front of his jersey this season, it’s clear that Eichel is a leader both on the ice and off it. He wore an A last season and grew into the leadership role as the season went on.
Whether or not he gets the C, or just an A, Eichel will be leading this team into the 2018-19 NHL season, which begins in just a few short weeks. For now, the focus lies on training camp and the upcoming preseason schedule.