Inside the numbers: Eichel’s dominant start

Currently riding a 10-game point streak, the Sabres’ captain finds himself among the NHL’s elite

Dating back to his freshman season at Boston University, Jack Eichel has been overshadowed to some degree. Leading up to his first professional season, he was second fiddle to Connor McDavid during the pre-draft process. Even during his four years in Buffalo, his fantastic individual performances were often under-appreciated amid the organization’s inability to emerge from the league basement.

Last year under Phil Housley, fan ire was often misdirected at the then 22-year-old for not singlehandedly willing a group with limited talent (not to mention flawed coaching tactics) to success. Criticism pertaining to his body language, and palpable frustration with his squad’s perpetual struggles was often the focus, despite his standing as the team’s most consistent offensive performer on a nightly basis.

With the Buffalo Sabres currently keeping pace in a tightly contested Atlantic Division (and by extension, Eastern Conference as a whole), Eichel has silenced most of his critics, and his dominant start to the season has finally placed him in the conversation among the NHL’s elite. Following Monday’s contest against the New Jersey Devils, his point-streak hit the 10-game mark, producing nine goals, and 10 assists in that stretch. With 38 points in 28 games on the year, he is on pace for an obscene 111 points, which would shatter his career-best mark of 82 he posted in 2018-19.

It goes without saying that Eichel has always been productive from an offensive standpoint, but in his fifth professional season, he’s reached a new level. Not only is he on pace for the best statistical output of his career, but his ability as a well-rounded centerman has been on full display. Looking into the underlying numbers, there are a few different trends that have stood out so far.

Even if Eichel regresses a bit from his current goal-scoring clip, we’re still likely to see him hit the 40-goal mark for the first time in his career. From a shooting standpoint, he’s been phenomenal, exceeding his expected goal rate (based on shot location and quality) by a wide margin. His conversion rate of 16.3-percent dwarfs his previous career-best of 10.2 he set in 2017-18.

From a shot-location standpoint, he isn’t doing anything particularly different from last season. In fact, he’s shooting with a level of accuracy that has resulted in a notable discrepancy between his actual goal total, and his expected-goal total (as indicated above). What’s also interesting is the fact that he’s not even producing shots at a higher rate than last season. In fact, he’s on pace for 304 total shots on goal, only one more than his total from 2018-19.

So, the aforementioned six-point bump in shooting-percentage is more a result of improved shot accuracy (and maybe some puck luck) as opposed to an increase in chances from optimal shooting positions in comparison to years past.

This isn’t to say he hasn’t shown any growth from a positional standpoint as a shooter (although he was already superb in that regard, his average shot distance has decreased a bit), but the difference probably isn’t enough to account for such a significant percentage increase. Elite offensive players often out-perform their xG rates, and that’s exactly what Eichel has become. Elite.

One of the few criticisms Eichel has faced this season pertains to his propensity to pass the puck rather than take a shot, particularly on the man-advantage. There may be some validity to that concern, but as an elite playmaker, he continues to do an excellent job of finding his linemates in scoring position regardless. Though the data available is relatively limited, it comes as no surprise that in the games sampled, he is one of the Sabres’ top assets in terms of primary shot assists.

One player in particular who has benefited from his ability as a set-up man is Victor Olofsson. Of the first-year winger’s 11 goals so far this season, Eichel has contributed the primary assist on six of them. Last season, we saw what the captain was capable of when centering an elite scoring winger in Jeff Skinner, and we’re being treated to a similar effect with a natural sniper in Olofsson. As the Swedish standout continues to display positional improvement at even-strength, their connection (both in the offensive zone, and in transition) will be even more dangerous for opposing defenses.

Eichel’s offensive acumen is well established, and has been for some time. One area of his game that has flown under the radar is his ability as a two-way center. Last season, he really thrived as a zone-exit, and controlled zone-entry asset, especially during the back half of the year. That level of balance has become a consistent part of his game. Part of this is evidenced by his individual xGA/60 metrics so far this year when held in comparison to last season.

On top of the improved xGA and Corsi-against numbers, Eichel’s GAR of 9.7 (which factors in defensive impacts as well as offensive) ranks fourth among NHL forwards so far this season. From a deployment standpoint, nothing earth-shattering has changed from this year to last. In fact, his offensive zone-start rate has actually decreased by about nine-percent, down from over 70-percent in 2018-19.

Circling back to the leadership criticisms referenced earlier on, Eichel’s defensive impact was routinely called into question as well prior to this season (and at times, rightfully so). While there were certainly stretches earlier in his career that he displayed two-way ability, it is now showing up with consistency, and his growth in that regard has become evident beyond what the underlying numbers indicate.

The Sabres’ captain has put the team on his back more than once this season, especially when those around him were failing to produce for extended periods (namely, when the team lost 10 of 12 to start the month of November). He is the ice time leader among forwards in all five-on-five situations (i.e. trailing, leading, and tied), and has recently been second-shifted on the power-play in an attempt to help kick-start a unit that converted once on 37 attempts last month.

At the end of the day, any perceived concerns with Eichel’s game (legitimate or otherwise) have been silenced. He is doing absolutely everything that can be expected out of a team captain. He’s scoring, he’s defending, and he’s even throwing fists with unsuspecting opponents to get his team fired up during blowout losses. If his current pace continues, he’ll find himself in the Hart Trophy conversation by the end of the season, especially if he can keep Buffalo in the playoff conversation despite their overall lack of scoring depth.

RAPM Charts courtesy of Evolving Hockey

G vs xG Graph and Shot Location Chart courtesy of Charting Hockey

Shot Heatmaps courtesy of HockeyViz