BUFFALO, N.Y. — Breaking sticks, icy stares and one-word answers made out of frustration have done nothing to transform the Sabres into contenders during centre Jack Eichel‘s three seasons in Buffalo.
Perhaps, Eichel has begun to realize he can’t lead by emotion alone.
“I think that’s important, obviously, not reacting, body language, staying upbeat. I think that’s part of it,” Eichel told The Associated Press after joining numerous teammates for an informal session at the team’s practice facility Thursday.
“I do wear my heart on my sleeve, and I’m somebody who’s very competitive. I like to win,” added Eichel, who can be as fiery his curly red hair. “This losing the last few years, I’ve never dealt with that in my life. And you kind of have to learn from it and figure out what you can do to change it.”
If that means the face of the Sabres’ needs to don a more even-keeled persona, then the 21-year-old hopes to take the next step in emerging as a leader.
“With any experience you’re going to learn things and grow as a player, as a person,” said Eichel, noting he’s consulted with various friends and mentors on what it takes to lead.
“I’ve had a few years to learn about things and see some things that occur, and the right way to do things and the wrong way to do things,” he added. “Every day, if you come in here and work and put your head down, you do the right things, you’re a good teammate, I think the results in the games will take care of themselves.”
Eichel spoke while preparing to enter a transformative season for him and potentially the franchise, which has spent much of the off-season retooling a high-priced and under-achieving roster.
For Eichel, he enters a season in which his new eight-year, $80 million contract kicks in, making the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft the highest-paid player in franchise history.
As for the Sabres, they’ve made numerous changes since finishing last for the third time in five years.
Centre Ryan O’Reilly , who acknowledged a losing culture crept into the locker room, is gone after being traded to St. Louis. Buffalo’s starting over in goal with free-agent addition Carter Hutton, and Linus Ullmark set to make the jump from the minors.
General manager Jason Botterill also brought in a wealth of forward talent to potentially play alongside Eichel by acquiring wingers Conor Sheary, Jeff Skinner and Tage Thompson in separate trades. And then there’s No. 1 draft pick, Swedish defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, who is expected to make an immediate impact this year.
“I think it’s good for us, some fresh faces,” Eichel said. “The last few years have been pretty bad, so I think it can bring a bit of a different culture.”
They join a team built around Eichel, a swift-skating, hard-shooting centre who hasn’t yet played to his full potential due to injuries and a lack of top-line talent around him.
In three seasons, he leads all Sabres with 73 goals and 177 points in 209 games despite missing lengthy stretches with ankle injuries in each of the last two years.
His production has failed to make a dent on a team in the midst of a franchise-worst seven-year playoff drought.
The lack of success eats at Eichel.
A year ago, he arrived for the start of training camp by candidly saying, “I’ve proven nothing” over what he called “two mediocre seasons.”
This year, Eichel has very little more to add except to say: “You can only do so much talking. Obviously, we need to just go out and play.”
Veteran forward Kyle Okposo paused when asked by The AP what he would like to see out of Eichel this year. Okposo then proceeded to discuss how Eichel can be better by keeping his emotions in check.
“He’s an extremely, extremely passionate guy. I just want to see him maybe not internalize his emotions, because I think that does help him in his play, but …” Okposo said, pausing once again in search for the right words to say.
He agreed when asked if he wanted Eichel to harness his emotions.
“Yeah, that’s a good word, harness, maybe harness it a little bit and just try and not have them be so prevalent,” Okposo said.
“He takes this franchise on his back, and he puts a lot of pressure on himself,” he added, hoping the new additions will relieve some of that pressure.
“He’s a very special talent. I’d just like to see him put his head down and work,” Okposo said. “You’ve got to let those emotions out sometimes, but I think his work ethic comes first.”