There are a few incredibly talented young players in the NHL who have not yet had the pleasure of playing on championship rosters.
Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers has a chance to become one of the greatest in the history of the sport. However, he has only gotten to the second round of the playoffs one time since debuting in the 2015-16 season.
Auston Matthews has been one of the most gifted offensive skaters in the league throughout his five campaigns. However, his Toronto Maple Leafs have yet to win a postseason series. As frustrated as these players might be with their lack of success come spring, Jack Eichel would trade places with them in a heartbeat.
With the second pick of the 2015 NHL entry draft, the Buffalo Sabres selected the Boston University Terrier. The native of North Chelmsford, Massachusetts was chosen by a team in desperate need of a change. The Sabres were coming off four straight campaigns posting an under .500 record, including back-to-back seasons with 51 regulation defeats. Buffalo and their fans were hoping that Eichel, the brilliant, offensive-minded center, could help get the franchise back on track.
Unfortunately for the Sabres, one man cannot rejuvenate an entire hockey franchise.
Buffalo has been horrendous during Eichel’s tenure. The Sabres have not finished better than six out of eight in its division and have twice earned the dubious honor of last place. But despite playing with sub-par talent, Eichel continues to do his part.
He has accumulated just under a point per game throughout his career. Considering Eichel does not have a plethora of all-star teammates to rely on, he puts up fantastic numbers drawing attention from the opponent’s best defensive skaters.
During the offseason, the Sabres tried to relieve some of Eichel’s workload by adding another bonafide offensive threat. They inked Taylor Hall to a one-year, eight-million-dollar deal in October. While Hall has contributed 12 points in 20 games, this season has been yet another disappointing trek for the Sabres.
In a competitive Eastern Division, Buffalo is again checking in where they often find themselves: the bottom of the standings. As of March 4, they have posted a dubious 6-11-3 record with an absurd minus 14 goal differential, meaning they have allowed 14 more goals than scored.
This season, Eichel and the Sabres have actually hit a new low. He has put up 15 points in 18 games, but the forward has only found the back of the net on two occasions. With the additions of Hall and Eric Staal this offseason, the Sabres’ offense should have seen an increase in their production. Instead, Buffalo is averaging a measly 2.2 goals a game, ranking them at 28 in the league. They are only ahead of the Detroit Red Wings, Anaheim Ducks and Nashville Predators.
It is sad watching a player as talented as Eichel waste away into this Buffalo abyss. It should be noted he is certainly not the first exceptional athlete to be strapped down with a lost franchise. Look no further than Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels or Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans. This tale of super-star athletes not getting to display their talents on the grandest stage is as old as super-star athletes capturing titles.
But while many phenomenal players fall short of championship glory, not many are saddled with the level of ineptitude Eichel cannot seem to escape. Ichiro Suzuki, Barry Sanders, Pavel Bure and other legends of their respective sports leagues were straddled with mediocre teams for much of their careers. But even those players at least experienced the playoffs.
Forget the postseason, Eichel has never enjoyed an over .500 season as a professional. And his frustration has not exactly been kept secret. He said as much after Buffalo was not invited to the NHL Bubble last May. It was the ninth-straight year the Sabres had not qualified for the playoffs, the fifth occasion with Eichel on the roster.
With trade speculations following Eichel as frequently as opponent’s top defenders, Buffalo’s captain might be able to get off the sinking ship. But nothing is guaranteed, and Eichel should certainly want to help turn the franchise around. However, it is clear he cannot singlehandedly will the Sabres into the playoffs.
It is time for Buffalo to hold up their end of the bargain and construct a serviceable roster for Eichel to work with. Before they set their minds on the playoffs or raising the Stanley Cup, the Sabres should concentrate their efforts on winning more games than they lose. If not, Buffalo will soon find themselves without Eichel and a fan-base.