Why ‘heart and soul’ Jack Eichel is building a case for MVP

Auston Matthews scored two goals to lead the Toronto Maple Leafs over the Buffalo Sabres 5-3.

TORONTO – If the Buffalo Sabres finally put an end to the longest playoff drought in the National Hockey League, it will be because Jack Eichel threw the franchise on his back and tugged it across the finish line.

Sure, it’s a Herculean task, one quietly being picked away at under the twin shadows of the Super Bowl–aspiring Buffalo Bills in town and the headline-hording Toronto Maple Leafs down the QEW.

But if any one athlete can lead the Sabres out of the doldrums, it is this matured, team-first, 200-foot threat we’ll dub Jack Eichel 5.0, the hottest player in hockey.

Four seasons of chronic losing can break a man. Or make one.

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Buffalo flew out of the gates last season a wagon on fire, surprisingly leaping into the playoff picture as Eichel and then-linemate Jeff Skinner lit up lamps en route to a 10-game win streak and a double date at all-star weekend. There was joy in Mudville.

Then everything slid off the rails. Between Dec. 15, 2018 and April 2, the Sabres couldn’t rub two wins together — literally. The coach got canned. Players were shed. Another reset around an $80-million franchise player who’s only known resets.

“The pain from last year was a big test of where his career was going to go, and he has processed it like a winner,” says new coach Ralph Krueger, who connected with his captain from their first pre-camp chat. “In that adversity, he grew.

“The conversations we were having showed that winner within him, and he’s made a lot of really good decisions here. He’s like all of us: we’re keeping our picture really small, we’re working day to day, and not so worried and all the white noise that always tracks you in the National Hockey League. Keeping that outside of our inner space has been important not only for Jack but for the whole group.”

So, on Tuesday night, with the highway-rival Toronto Maple Leafs seizing a 3-0 stranglehold through two periods and Eichel’s league-leading point streak in jeopardy, there is a lot of talk inside the Sabres room about what is needed, but it is a calm discussion.

“It’s controlled,” says Krueger. “We don’t have to speak a lot. We need to be ready when we’re out there and communicate within the game, and I think we’re doing that a lot. Jack leads the way there.”

Within a 14-minute span, Eichel sets up a Rasmus Dahlin power-play goal, zips a high-blocker laser past Frederik Andersen off the rush, draws a holding penalty on Zach Hyman by churning through the slot, then beckons his mates to huddle about the power-play strategy.

He is willing Buffalo back into a game it didn’t show up for, and giving, as always, hope for hockey in Western New York.

“Jack scores a big goal there,” teammate Kyle Okposo says. “Then we start to believe.”

On the night Eichel reaches 50 points, jumps to fourth in the Art Ross race, and extends this NHL season’s longest point streak to 17 games (16 goals, 15 assists), he takes 18 draws, fires five shots and skates a game-high 23:48 (yes, that includes defencemen).

Afterward, the captain quietly slips on his flip-flops, pulls a teammate aside to whisper-chat about a play gone wrong, and sits dutifully in his stall to address a 5-3 loss with reporters.

Eichel is lobbed a series of questions about his individual performance of late, the highlights that make Auston Matthews rave that he’s “on fire,” John Tavares note that he’s “really imposing himself on the game,” and Okposo say that “he’s coming into his own and becoming a superstar.”

Hovering over the visiting room’s hockey-glove odour is the (wholly correct) notion that he’s a Christmas contender for the Hart Trophy.

Eichel begins to say something about his increased confidence, but he uses the phrase “your confidence,” not “my confidence.”

Then he stops on a dime and switches directions.

He instead talks about a save Linus Ullmark made and how the power play has turned around and how his wingers, rookie Victor Olofsson and bestie Sam Reinhart, are making him look good.

Time and again, he mentions the team at large. Playoffs are the goal.

“We’re still developing our identity every day, and I think we’ve started to figure out what we’re going to be as a team and what’s going to make us successful,” Eichel says. “We’ve battled through some adversity, and I think it’s made us a better team and it started to make us realize what type of team we have to be.

“The way the city responded to the Bills getting into playoffs a few years ago and then, obviously, the other night making the playoffs again, it’s super cool. The fans are so passionate about them. And we definitely want to start getting that same type of attention for our group and proving we’re going to be a competitive team every night.”

We turn to a Harvard grad to help us understand what’s driving the captain.

“Last year was bittersweet with that good start, but he wants to be in the playoffs. You might use the word frustration, but knowing Jack for a while, he’s just a competitor. He’s the captain of the team. He was drafted second overall, and he wants to be the best,” says teammate Jimmy Vesey.

“He’s a specimen of an athlete. That maybe shows more true in the gym — not a lot of guys can keep up with what he does in the gym. His weights are off the chart, but it’s his athleticism. His running and his jumping is on par with a lot of guys in other sports, and we play on skates. He’s a world-class athlete.”

Eichel is also a student of the game. He devours outside-market games like a junkie, keeping an eye on Draisaitl and McDavid in Edmonton. Kucherov in Tampa. The other night Eichel was hanging out with Dahlin, so he let the Swede choose Elias Pettersson in Vancouver.

But his favourite contemporary to observe now might be the top candidate to steal his Hart: Nathan MacKinnon.

Like MacKinnon, Eichel has consciously put fresh emphasis on his defensive game, taking pride in elite matchups and responsible own-zone play. He says it’s paid off at the fun end of the rink.

Eichel gets it.

“The discrepancy between the best player and the bottom-line , it’s not crazy,” Eichel says. “The little details really add up. I think all the best players do it, and I’m just trying to do it myself.”

Entering this season, Eichel was a career minus-65 player. This season he’s a plus-14 on pace for 56 goals and 117 points — totals that would destroy previous bests.

“You know, there’s very few players in the league that are a threat one-on-one, and he’s definitely at the top of the pile,” Krueger says. “And he’s having a lot of fun, which is I think an important element to his success.

“Is he one of the best players in the league? He always has been for me since Game 1. Let everybody else decide [Hart favourites] right now. We just want to build a season here. We want to keep that picture really small, and if any of those things come at this team after the season, I’ll be the loudest cheerer in the room.”

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