We all know about Jack Eichel’s ability to take over a game offensively. He’s on pace for a career high of 91 points this season. The Boston-native has taken his game to another level offensively and will continue to be a dominant presence at the end of the ice moving forward.
Over the last few games, his impact in the defensive zone has come into focus. The team as a whole has put an emphasis on cleaning up their play in their own end after giving up 17 goals in the first three games over their current home stand.
Using Eichel in more defensive situations appears to be part of head coach Phil Housley’s plan to improve his club in their own zone. This change in philosophy goes hand in hand with removing some responsibility off of Vladimir Sobotka’s plate. Over the last three games, Sobotka has had the second-lowest time on ice at 5 on 5 among forwards who have played in all three games. Housley has decided to supplement his usual defensive zone minutes with Johan Larsson and Eichel. A strategy that has appeared to pay off in a small window.
Eichel was a 40 percent offensive-zone start against the New York Islanders and a 25 percent offensive-zone start against the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday. Those two games are two of only five contests in which the 22-year-old center has had under 50 percent offensive zone starts.
Particularly in the last five minutes of the game against the Islanders, holding a one-goal lead, Housley rotated Eichel and Larsson. Evan Rodrigues took his last shift with 7:24 remaining and Sobotka had one shift with less than six minutes remaining, which came in the final seconds of the game.
We’ve even seen him get some time on the penalty kill recently. He played 1:52 on the kill against the Wild and created a shorthanded scoring chance. It may not be wise to advocate for Eichel to get heavy penalty kill minutes, but it could be a good strategy for Housley as a changeup. Also, it could be a way to create offense while shorthanded in a game situation in which they’re trailing late.
He appears to be welcoming the new role and understanding how it can help his team win games moving forward. “If you’re not going to score you gotta help the team do other things and I just tried to do that,” Eichel said after the win on Tuesday.
If Housley decides to stick with this new strategy it should pay off for the Sabres in the long run. Eichel isn’t the best face off guy to take those defensive zone draws (49.2 face off winning percentage). However, he’s more likely to regain possession after a lost draw and cleanly exit the zone with the puck as opposed to a player like Sobotka.
The chart below from Corey Sznajder shows that Eichel is one of the, if not the best, forward on the roster in transitional play and creating offense.
Jason Pominville’s goal on Tuesday night was a perfect example of Eichel’s ability to quickly turn defense into offense. He picks up the puck in his own and skates down the ice, eventually feeding Pominville as he crashed the net.
“The more we feed our forecheck, play in their end and get pucks below the goal line it’s a recipe for success and makes it easier on our defensemen,” Eichel said Tuesday evening.
At only 22-years-old, Eichel, still has some room for growth in his game. If he can provide more in the defensive zone to help his team, it’ll allow him to have the ability to firmly move into the discussion as one of the best all-around centers in the game.
This will be an interesting storyline to follow as we get close to the final quarter of the season and into some tight games. Ideally, you want your best players on the ice as much as possible. Giving Eichel the chance to help turn defense into offense could end up as a reason why the Sabres turn it around and sneak into a playoff spot if it all goes to plan.