Eichel not sweating contract, hopes to avenge frustrating season

Buffalo Sabres' Jack Eichel rests on the bench during the 2015 NHLPA Rookie Showcase in Toronto. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

Two months away from his 21st birthday, Jack Eichel is on the cusp of becoming a handsomely paid young man. But the slick-handed Buffalo Sabres pivot doesn’t seem all too concerned with his impending payday.

Eichel is set to enter the final year of his entry-level contract, allowing Sabres general manager Jason Botterill to ink him to a lengthy extension this summer. With his draft-day rival Connor McDavid recently pulling in an eight-year pact that will pay him $12.5 million annually, Eichel’s new deal could very well come in north of $10 million per season.

Not bad, but not the first thing on the young centreman’s mind, apparently.

“I’m just going to work hard this summer. All of that tends to take care of itself,” Eichel told the Lowell Sun‘s Barry Scanlon in a piece published Friday. “Obviously the contract is important. But for me it’s all about the play.”

The North Chelmsford, Mass., native is looking to right the ship in 2017-18 after enduring a frustrating sophomore campaign that saw plenty of misses – for him, 21 games due to injury, for his club, a shot at the post-season.

“It was frustrating,” Eichel said. “But injuries happen. It wasn’t the easiest injury to deal with. I started to play much better the second half of the season.

“But for me the most frustrating part was the underachieving of the team. I thought we had a pretty good team.”

That underachievement didn’t go unnoticed, as the Sabres wiped the front office slate clean following 2016-17. Now with a new general manager and head coach (Phil Housley), Buffalo will look to take the next step.

“A bit of change might have been good for us,” Eichel said. “We’re trying to build a positive culture. It is frustrating. You want to win.”

Eichel’s first two campaigns have been tumultuous affairs to say the least. He’s done his part, posting 24 goals and 56 points as a rookie and then an almost identical stat line one year later in 21 fewer games. However, his club hasn’t fared quite as well, finishing second-last in the Atlantic Division in 2015-16 and last in 2016-17.

Meanwhile, the majority of the comparable bottom-dwellers from Eichel’s rookie season – Toronto, Edmonton, Columbus and Calgary, for example – all had strong bounce-back campaigns last year, clawing their way to the playoffs.

Buffalo missed that mark, but Eichel seems dead set on ensuring that doesn’t happen too many times in the future. And that he’s the one to drive that bus.

“I’ve made it clear that I want to be a Sabre,” Eichel said. “I want to be in Buffalo when we start winning. I want to reward the city. It’s been two great years. I don’t want to go anywhere else.”

That sentiment is likely easy to understand for the club’s new head coach. Ranking as the fourth-highest scoring blue liner in NHL history, Housley has plenty of experience taking teams on his shoulders and bearing the weight of their successes and failures.

But he’s hoping to limit how much that affects his young star.

“There are so many demands on you as a player, especially having a big impact on an organization,” Housley told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen on Tuesday. “It seems like everybody wants a piece of you.

“I think with Jack, he could be a really big influence on other players around him. He has that aura around him that he’s one of the top players in the League. I just want him to play. Play the game and don’t worry about any distractions.”