One of the toughest challenges for any NHL rookie is maintaining a high level of consistency against bigger and stronger players on a nightly basis and over an entire season.
Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel and Calgary Flames left wing Sam Bennett are discovering it's tough to duplicate the success they each had at the collegiate and junior hockey level, respectively, in the best League in the world. It hasn't discouraged them, but each knows patience and a little persistence will pay off in the end.
It isn't as though Eichel or Bennett are struggling this season. Rather, it's more of an adjustment period.
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"It's a tough League and I think the travel and the schedule is something I wasn't completely prepared for," Bennett said. "That might be one of the challenges."
When asked to assess his rookie season with the Flames, Bennett was hard on himself. The 19-year-old has one assist in his past 13 games.
"Mediocre," he said. "Definitely I have a lot more to bring. I want to do more and help my team win more."
Eichel feels the same way, but did break out of a slump with one of his most memorable games of the season Saturday in Boston, where he made a name for himself as the freshman sensation at Boston University in 2014-15. Eichel had the first multigoal game of his career with two goals and four points in a 6-3 victory against the Boston Bruins.
"At the end of the day it's a huge win and it's a super-nice way to start the next segment for us," Eichel said. "Just exciting to get a win and do it in the fashion we did in front of so many friends and family."
Flames coach Bob Hartley recently had an interesting take on the thought process of most NHL rookies, and how many seem to stress when they aren't producing.
"Kids rate their game with a scoresheet," Hartley told the Calgary Sun. "If their name's on the scoresheet, they feel they had a good game. But that's not always the case, especially at center where there's so many more responsibilities."
Bennett played one regular-season game and 11 more in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Flames last season. He had three goals, four points and 20 shots on goal in the playoffs as left wing on a line with Mikael Backlund and Joe Colborne.
Bennett had played center for much of his three seasons in Kingston in the Ontario Hockey League, so the switch to wing was an adjustment.
"He was pretty quiet with us and now he's starting to feel more comfortable," Colborne said. "You can see it on the ice too, the way he's calling for the puck. He's not the shy little rookie he was. He's stepped in and learned to let his skills do the talking for him. He's almost like Johnny [Gaudreau] where three or four times a game Johnny does something and the crowd is in awe.
"Sam does it in different areas of the ice but he's kind of that same player that at any moment he can break something wide open."
Such was the case Nov. 12 in a 3-1 loss at the Tampa Bay Lightning. Bennett knew he had to skate away from traffic to find an open area in the slot during a power play before redirecting a pass from Backlund past goaltender Ben Bishop 6:45 into the second period.
Bennett was auditioning as second-line center in September but was returned to left wing on the third line. Hartley wants to see Bennett ultimately succeed at his natural center position.
"He has to learn the difference where he needs to pressure hard and where he needs to play his job as a center," Hartley told the Calgary Herald. "Even though our system is based on pressure and speed, our center doesn't have to go full speed all the time. Sammy wants to go hard, but sometimes you put yourself out of position."
In a 3-2 overtime win at the Washington Capitals on Nov. 13, Bennett did a nice job of controlling the puck in the opposing zone while keeping his head up before delivering a backhand pass to Michael Frolik for a goal against Philipp Grubauer to open the scoring in the second period.
Eichel was happy to finally break out of his scoring slump Saturday in familiar surroundings; he entered the game against the Bruins with one goal in his previous 11 games.
The last time the native of North Chelmsford, Mass., played at TD Garden was as a freshman for Boston University in a 4-3 loss to Providence College in the NCAA championship on April 11. He led the nation with 26 goals, 71 points and a plus-51 rating in 40 games last season to help the Terriers to the Beanpot Tournament title and Hockey East championship.
"There's times this year where I could have had points in games and I didn't and [against Boston] I think I just got the bounces," Eichel said. "Sometimes the bounces come to you and you get that luck and it's nice to get it in [TD Garden]."
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma knows it has been a struggle at times for Eichel, but he's glad the rookie has stuck with the process to get where he needs to be.
"We've seen him play some great games and we've seen some tough stretches of playing a lot of hockey through the first 35 games," Bylsma said. "We've had this six-day break and we've seen him come back from that break energized and with a little more jump in his step.
"He's an excellent, dynamic player, and that's where he's got to be night in and night out for us."
Before breaking out against the Bruins, Eichel last scored in a 4-2 loss at the Edmonton Oilers on Dec. 6.
That game was supposed to be the first between Connor McDavid and Eichel, the top two picks in the 2015 NHL Draft. McDavid didn't play because of a fractured clavicle sustained in a 4-2 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 3 but should be healthy enough to go in the rematch in Buffalo on March 1.
McDavid told TSN Radio 1050 in Toronto on Dec. 22 that his recovery from surgery is coming along nicely.
"I feel very good," McDavid said. "I feel pretty good on the ice so there's lot of good stuff going on."
Despite the fact he might not be scoring as often as he would like, Eichel is generating some quality chances as second-line center. In a 3-0 win against the Anaheim Ducks on Dec. 17, Eichel exhibited a lot of patience controlling the puck along the half boards and skating to the left point before firing an attempt that hit the right skate of Sabres forward Evander Kane and got past Ducks goaltender John Gibson for a 1-0 lead 2:36 into the second.
"There have been times where Jack would hang onto that puck and try to make some more out of it and cut the seam," Bylsma said.
It's a type of play Bylsma would like to see Eichel do more often. He has stressed that scoring chances are few and far between at this level and it's imperative he simply take what's given.
In a 2-1 shootout victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Oct. 21, Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf offered high praise of Eichel even after he had no points.
"I know he's only 19," Phaneuf said, "but Jack Eichel is far beyond his years."