Num­bers don’t mean Jack

Hot rookie Eichel won’t wear No. 15 un­til he feels he has earned spot with Sabres

SundayXtra - - NHLREPORT - By Stephen Whyno

BUF­FALO, N.Y. — Con­nor McDavid put on a No. 97 Ed­mon­ton Oil­ers jersey the day he was drafted. Jack Eichel won’t wear the No. 15 he picked out un­til he makes the Buf­falo Sabres.

Eichel, cho­sen sec­ond be­hind McDavid in the NHL draft, will make the Sabres and is the face of the fran­chise’s turn­around. But the 18-year- old out of Bos­ton Univer­sity re­fuses to switch from the No. 41 he wore at the rookie tour­na­ment and de­vel­op­ment camp un­til coach Dan Bylsma tells him he has won a job.

“This is still train­ing camp, so I think the most im­por­tant thing is I still have to earn a po­si­tion and earn a role on the Sabres,” Eichel said Fri­day af­ter his first prac­tice. “When that time comes, if it does come, I’ll make the change from 41 to 15.”

No mat­ter what num­ber is on his jersey, Eichel is con­sid­ered a gen­er­a­tional tal­ent like McDavid, and ex­pec­ta­tions are high for his rookie sea­son. He started camp as Buf­falo’s unof­fi­cial No. 2 cen­tre be­tween Matt Moul­son — who thrived as a line­mate of John Tavares with the New York Is­lan­ders — and all-star Zem­gus Gir­gen­sons.

Thanks to the ac­qui­si­tions of winger Evan­der Kane and cen­tre Ryan O’Reilly, Bylsma and other play­ers know Eichel doesn’t have to carry the Sabres on his shoul­ders.

“The great thing that we have right now is that he doesn’t have to go out and be the star on our team,” Bylsma said. “He needs to learn and im­prove and de­velop as a player, and when he does, he will be ef­fec­tive.”

Eichel’s skat­ing is al­ready NHL­cal­i­bre, but Bylsma said he’ll have to learn to play at a higher pace with and with­out the puck. Those who have skated with him in re­cent weeks see the flashes of skill and fully un­der­stand they don’t mean he’ll be a star right away.

“I think Jack’s got ex­tremely raw tal­ent, and the NHL’s a fast­paced, struc­tured game,” top-line winger Tyler En­nis said. “Like a lot of us, he’s go­ing to have to learn along the way and be pre­pared to play a high pace. I don’t think that should be a prob­lem for him be­cause of how well he can skate.”

Eichel ex­pected the high pace of Bylsma’s first prac­tice as Sabres coach, which was well north of any­thing he ex­pe­ri­enced at the col­lege level, where he won the Hobey Baker Award as the top NCAA player. He had the ben­e­fit of skat­ing along­side Moul­son, with whom he is liv­ing this sea­son.

Moul­son reached out to Sabres gen­eral man­ager Tim Mur­ray around the draft to say he and his wife wouldn’t mind hous­ing Eichel. Moul­son also served as Tavares’s land­lord when the Is­lan­ders su­per­star was a rookie.

“He re­ally is a great kid with a big heart,” Moul­son said of Eichel. “I think it’ll be a re­ally fun year. He’s got that youth­ful energy about him that kind of flows through me when he’s at home and his ex­cite­ment and energy.”

Mur­ray and Bylsma were all for the idea, but Eichel took some time be­fore de­cid­ing to say yes. He said that’s be­cause he didn’t want to as­sume he’d be in the NHL.

“It’s tough for me to com­mit to some­thing like that prior to mak­ing the team,” Eichel said. “I didn’t want to tell him that I’d be liv­ing with him un­til I made the team. That’s still the sit­u­a­tion. I have to earn that. I’m just try­ing to do that.”

Bylsma loves that Eichel is tak­ing that ap­proach, even though No. 15 shirts and jer­seys are al­ready selling well in the Buf­falo area. Eichel-ma­nia is ram­pant, but the North Chelms­ford, Mass., na­tive said it’s a “buzz around the whole team.”

Eichel also sounded ma­ture be­yond his years about how the Sabres won’t un­dergo a 180-de­gree change overnight. But as they be­gin the process of try­ing to con­tend, Eichel will be a ma­jor part of that.

“He is 18, it’s go­ing to be a bit of a learn­ing curve, but he’s a spe­cial player for a rea­son,” de­fence­man Mike We­ber said. “We’re ex­pect­ing to have big things out of him.”

Eichel ex­pects big things out of him­self, too, be­liev­ing no player puts more pres­sure on him­self than he does.

“I want to do well be­cause I’m a com­pet­i­tive guy, and I want to find suc­cess just like any­one else,” Eichel said.

DAR­REN CALABRESE / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES

Buf­falo Sabres rookie cen­tre Jack Eichel has im­pressed with his ob­vi­ous skills, hum­ble ap­proach and will­ing­ness to learn.

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