Jack Eichel unlikely to play for Team USA at world championship

Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

TORONTO – There’s no question Team USA would have a better shot at a IIHF World Championship medal with Jack Eichel as its No. 1 centre, but the Buffalo Sabres star appears unlikely to accept an invitation from his country this spring.

“It’s a tough situation with the ankle and the long season. You have to be fully committed to going to a tournament like that because it’s so long. We’ll see,” Eichel said Monday.

For now, we’ll take that as a soft no.

A severe high-ankle sprain limited Eichel to 61 games played in 2016-17 and a second ankle injury, suffered this February versus Boston, cost him another 15 games this season.

Despite skating at less than full health, Eichel has set a career high in goals (25) and paces all his teammates in points (62). The 21-year-old’s five-assist performance Wednesday in a victory over Nashville propelled him to the NHL’s Third-Star-of-the-Week honours.

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The Sabres have yet to qualify for the post-season since drafting Eichel, and the face of the franchise will have his new eight-year, $80-million contract kick in for 2018-19.

Health trumps all, including a medal shot.

“I’ve been twice,” said Eichel, who represented the senior national team in 2015 (bronze) and 2017 (fifth).

“It’s always a great experience. You’re playing more hockey, which is important. That’s a big thing. It’s good competition. It’s a great experience for you as a person, as a player, to represent your country. You’re also playing against the world’s best. For guys who don’t make the playoffs, guys who aren’t playing, it’s an opportunity for you to get better and find out a little bit about yourself as a player.”

Conversely, fellow Sabres centre Ryan O’Reilly confirmed he will represent Canada in Denmark next month.

“Anytime they ever ask, I’d absolutely 100 per cent go,” O’Reilly said.

The club’s brand-new top-nine centre Casey Mittelstadt said Monday he has not yet “officially” been invited to the world championships but would leap at the opportunity to vie for an international medal at both junior and senior tournaments in the same year.

“Clayton Keller did it last year and he loved it, so it would be pretty cool for me to do that,” said Mittelstadt. “I’ve watched it for many years so I’d love to do it.”

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Mittelstadt led the U.S. to a bronze medal and was named MVP of the world junior tournament. The 19-year-old NCAA star signed an entry-level deal with Buffalo last week and was immediately called up to make an offensive impact. He has two assists over two games played heading into Monday’s contest in Toronto.

“He’s out a month, and he steps right into some difficult situations. He played 12 to 13 minutes his first game, now he’s getting more minutes,” said coach Phil Housley. “I just like the way he’s played. He’s played well with the puck and without it.”

Historically, the U.S. has won a total of 11 medals at the worlds but hasn’t reached a final since 1960. The Americans finished fifth in 2017, favouring a roster of youth over the best available hockey players.

Taking note of the rapid NHL rebuilds in Colorado and New Jersey over the course of a year’s time, Eichel’s sights are firmly on preparing for the Sabres’ future as opposed to IIHF glory.

“You can make a quick turnaround in this league and put yourself in a good position,” Eichel said.

“I gotta be better next year.”

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