Note: This is SB Nation NHL’s top 25 players under age 25 series! We’ll be covering each player from No. 25 to No. 1 over the next few weeks leading up to training camp time. See the complete list and information on how the rankings were compiled.
It feels like the 2017-18 season is going to be an important one for Jack Eichel. Coming off an offseason where the Buffalo Sabres turned over a new head coach and general manager, the spotlight will be on Eichel to lead by example.
Given the paths other young NHL stars have taken in their short time in the league, Eichel, 20, has seemingly fallen a step behind the pack. Eichel was drafted as the second overall pick in 2015, but has since lived in Connor McDavid’s shadow as the perceived “runner up” to the Edmonton Oilers’ draft lottery win. In his two years in the NHL, Eichel has proved that he’s more than capable to stand in a class of his own.
In his rookie year, Eichel posted 56 points in 81 games, just four points behind the Sabres’ top scorer in 2015-16. Eichel followed his rookie season up with a 57 point season in 61 games, a pace that would have given him 77 points had he played a full 82-game slate. It’s also a pace that would have tied him for seventh place overall in the NHL with Leon Draisaitl among the league’s top point producers. Unfortunately, an ankle injury derailed the start of what was ultimately a prosperous sophomore season. Even though he missed 21 games due to injury, Eichel still led the Sabres in points.
When compared with McDavid, Eichel and others will always fall short of the mark. Taking Eichel away from those comparisons and letting him stand on his own merits shows him to be a more-than-capable top-six center. It doesn’t help that, so far, Eichel has been saddled with an underperforming and poorly managed Sabres team that didn’t have the correct complementary pieces around their star.
With a combined 113 points in 142 games, Eichel has produced quite consistently thanks to his breakout sophomore year. And he’s getting his chances, too, as he’s ranked among the NHL’s top 20 players in producing shots over the last two seasons. With only a 9.9 shooting percentage, Eichel has seemingly done almost all that he can on a bad Sabres team.
Given how he showed his talents last year, a big season may be in the cards for Eichel. And the Sabres will need him if they want to make the jump from rebuilders to contenders.
Eichel became a real hockey standout within the last few years, winning the Hobey Baker Award in his freshman season at Boston University. During the 2014-15 season, his only year with the Terriers, Eichel put up 71 points in 40 games, and along with it came the Hockey East scoring title, Player of the Year, and Rookie of the Year titles.
His Hobey Baker win was also the first by a college freshman since Paul Kariya at the University of Maine in 1993.
Internationally, Eichel was a member of two medaled Team USA squads for the IIHF World U18 Championship in 2013 and 2014. In 2014, when Team USA won gold, Eichel had 10 points in seven games as the team’s youngest player.
In the recent World Cup of Hockey, Eichel was selected to represent Team North America as one of the NHL’s best players under the age of 23 from the United States and Canada.
Buffalo’s new general manager Jason Botterill has done a fine job of adding supporting cast to Eichel this past offseason. The team added defenseman Marco Scandella and forward Jason Pominville to the mix, helping secure the Sabres’ depth. Eichel will likely sit at the second center spot behind 26-year-old Ryan O'Reilly for next season, giving the Sabres a nice one-two combo up the middle.
While Eichel has been given an average of 19:28 minutes a night over his last two seasons, if his breakout continues there’s no doubt that number will climb. There’s potential in the upcoming season for Eichel to take that next step and become the Sabres’ No. 1 center, but it will likely only happen if he can replicate his production from last season over a full year of work.
And he has good reason to, as Eichel’s three-year, entry-level deal is set to expire after this season. Given the high price McDavid has reset the market to, Eichel will no doubt want to prove himself in a contract year. The latest reports have Eichel and the Sabres nearing an eight-year deal, the max term the NHL allows.
Is this ranking too high or too low?
It’s almost unfair that Eichel is ranked so low, given what he could have done last season without injuries. On the flip side, his rookie season was littered with spots of inconsistency and misplays that some first-year players face.
Year three will be a telling one for Eichel’s career. While his No. 8 ranking may be too low by this time next year, Eichel will first have to prove his strong sophomore season is who he can be as a hockey player.
Highest rank: No. 4
Lowest rank: Not ranked