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Reliance on Eichel remains a problem

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As the Sabres season has slowly devolved from promising to disastrous, their best player continues to draw more than his fair share of criticism

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve all seen it. Conversations that develop as a result of any article, soundbite, or innocuous tweet regarding the Buffalo Sabres’ struggles have a tendency to devolve into another exhausting debate about Jack Eichel. For a player who has put together a season where he has set new career-highs across the board, it’s somewhat surprising that there remains a portion of the fan base that remains unsatisfied with his play.

Few will blame the blue-and-gold faithful for being frustrated. After all, this is a team that will soon hold the honor of having the league’s longest playoff drought, but to direct those frustrations toward a relatively blemish-free player on a team full of under-performing assets seems misguided.

A popular criticism of Eichel’s game (for virtually his entire career in Buffalo) seems to revolve around his effort, drive, interest, etc. Now that he holds the title of captain, those intangibles are being held under a microscope to an even greater extent. Earlier in the season, Alex Prewitt of Sports Illustrated wrote a wonderful piece that provided an in-depth look at what inspires Eichel to be great, and highlighted his pregame routine, something that he adheres to meticulously. He’s even hired a personal chef to ensure that his diet is helping him maintain peak performance on the ice.

Certainly doesn’t sound like someone who has become even remotely disinterested.

This false perception held by some tracks back to two specific points of circumstance that are largely out of Eichel’s control. The first of which is the long, painful, and at some points, embarrassing path that the organization took in order to acquire him. For the entirety of the 2014-15 season, nearly everyone in the hockey world hammered home the perception that two separate “generational” talents existed in the upcoming draft.

“Generational” is an interesting term, and one that is probably too frequently used when analyzing top prospects. The reality is that one generational player existed in the 2015 draft, and that was Connor McDavid. That isn’t a slight at Eichel, who can almost certainly be considered “elite”, but because of the anticipation leading up to his arrival, fans expected a franchise savior, not just a critical piece of the puzzle.

Perhaps it’s time to do-away with the term “franchise savior” as well. No one player can elevate an entire team on his own. Even McDavid, who may very well be the top player in the league, couldn’t single-handedly drag his squad to the playoffs this season, despite putting together a campaign where he’ll surpass 100 points. Rarely do you ever see an Edmonton Oilers fan clamor for him to do more to elevate his team. That’s because he was appropriately dubbed as “generational” and his individual performance has lived up to that billing.

While Eichel was always viewed as the second-best prospect of that draft, the narrative that he’d have been the first-overall pick in any other draft in the decade prior was perhaps a false narrative perpetuated by Sabres fans in order to make themselves feel better about the franchise all but forfeiting the 2014-15 season (which was still the correct course of action, but perhaps a debate for another time). Again, that’s not a shot at him, it’s just the circumstance of both his draft year, and a team that moved heaven and earth (and every goaltender not named Matt Hackett) in order to acquire him. That’s a lot of build-up.

The second factor that is, at least in part, out of Eichel’s control, is the perception that he calls it quits once it appears that the Sabres have been effectively eliminated from playoff contention. In this case, there is at least some surface data to back up that observation, but certainly not enough to draw a firm conclusion.

Let’s take a brief trip back to last season. Over the last 20 games of 2017-18, he was kept off the score sheet 11 times. While he did register 19 points in that span, nine of those came during a two-game period where he exploded for four and five points, respectively (January 23 against Edmonton, and March 31 against the Nashville Predators). Though his production in the final stretch was on-par for what he was already producing to that point, his frequent absence from the box score didn’t go unnoticed by an increasingly frustrated fan base.

That regression fit right into the confirmation bias that already existed from his time under Dan Bylsma. We’re seeing a similar trend in 2018-19, but we must be careful to analyze it properly, and not just accept it at face-value.

After exploding for nine points in seven games to close out the month of February, he’s been held without a point in seven of the team’s last 12 contests. Obviously, we need to do a little more work in order to determine if this is indeed a result of the Sabres’ current situation (and by extension, Eichel’s attitude toward it) or if it’s merely a coincidence.

So, let’s dig in, shall we?

While we don’t have the rolling expected-goals data from 2017-18 at our disposal for comparison, we can see a noticeable dip in Eichel’s xG as of late, as evidenced by the chart below from Charting Hockey.

You’ll notice that this recent stretch isn’t the first time Eichel’s xG projection has taken a hit this season. The other two significant dips took place when Buffalo was in the very thick of the playoff race. This can be attributed to a number of things. Perhaps teams adjusted well to the fact that the Sabres were stacking all of their offensive talent on one line. It’s tough to say for sure, but deciding that the most recent regression has mostly to do with a lack of interest (or any other intangible) is a bold assertion given the up-and-down trends we’ve see all season.

His shooting metrics also add another layer to the story. The chart below highlights what he’s done over the last 20 games. The high-danger congestion rate isn’t surprising as he’s done that well all season, but his shots in general are coming from further out, up by nearly five feet from his season average. That is significant.

What’s interesting is how this distance change has coincided with Jeff Skinner’s metrics, which show that he’s actually getting closer to the net (not to mention the fact that he’s generating more shots) during the second half of the season. Perhaps teams have been honing in on Eichel specifically, which is allowing his linemates to get in closer. Again, we can only go by what the data tells us without knowing if that’s the case for certain, but it’s a factor worth taking into account.

At the end of the day, even if it’s true that Eichel is feeling dejected, it would be tough to blame him. Lately, when KeyBank Center isn’t sparsely populated, it’s flooded with opposing fans. Despite being the best player on the team, nothing he ever does seems good enough. In the five games he’s been out of the lineup this season, the Sabres were completely hapless, losing three times, two of which were shutouts.

For a fierce and dedicated competitor, the situation has to wear on him at some point, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for a loss of interest. Frankly, it would be more worrisome if he wasn’t frustrated with the current state of affairs.

The Sabres have a lot of problems. They’re not nearly deep enough, the coach has failed in countless ways to optimize the weapons at his disposal, and the front office seemed content letting this season play out despite the obvious downward trajectory. Captain or not, those aren’t problems that Eichel can fix.

Is he perfect? Of course not. Every player has room for improvement, but to immediately go after him for not doing his part on a team that is virtually useless without him is outrageous. What he’s been able to do this season under perhaps the least ideal circumstances in the entire league, cannot be taken for granted. He is an elite player, and fans will soon forget the days where his level of motivation was criticized. That is, if the front office can finally find a way to build a respectable roster around him.