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Eichel eyes NHL debut, Sabres to help him adjust

by Joe Yerdon

BUFFALO -- When the Buffalo Sabres host the Ottawa Senators on Thursday, it will mark the official start of Jack Eichel's NHL career.

Eichel will play his first regular-season NHL game, and after a long summer of sorting through being the second pick at the 2015 NHL Draft, Sabres development camp, the Sabres Prospects Challenge and his first NHL training camp, his dream will become a reality.

"I'm really excited about it. I have a lot of family and friends coming in so it's going to be a special moment for me," Eichel said Tuesday. "It's something I've dreamed of my whole life; stepping foot on that ice and making the NHL. I'm trying to soak it all in right now with everything that's going on in my life. I think it's all happened really quickly, but I'm trying to soak it all in. It's kind of been a whirlwind, but you're finally playing hockey for a living and everything you've done your whole life is to get to this point. It's pretty special."

Eichel skated on a line with veterans Matt Moulson and Brian Gionta on Tuesday, but Gionta missed practice Wednesday because of an injury. At practice Wednesday Eichel skated with Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart, the second pick of the 2014 draft.

Having Moulson and Gionta as potential linemates gives Eichel the advantage of being able to lean on two players who have spent a lot of time in the League; Moulson is entering his ninth season while Gionta begins his 14th, and second as Sabres captain.

"I'm sure I'll think of something funny to make him laugh," Moulson, who made his NHL debut with the Los Angeles Kings in 2007, said Tuesday. "I think it's tough for anyone to say any one thing to you when you're playing your first game. It's something you dream of as a kid to play in the NHL. That first game [for me] … Rob Blake could've given me a 10-minute talk and I probably wouldn't have heard a word he was saying just because the nerves and the adrenaline and the excitement of playing your game."

First games usually come with jitters and Eichel said it won't be any different for him. Even though he's already played in some major events in his career, from the NCAA championship game with Boston University last season to the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship and the 2015 IIHF World Championship, there's only one time he'll get to play in his first NHL game.

"The biggest thing is just to calm yourself," Gionta said Tuesday. "You know, you get real excited for it but you want to keep it controlled. You go out there and you're all jacked up and flying around; you need some control in your game. So it's finding that balance between getting too excited."

Even though Eichel is 18 years old, he's shown during the preseason why the Sabres took him second at the draft. In four games he scored two goals, both shorthanded, including a play against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sept. 29 that showed his speed and skill after he pulled away from Maple Leafs forward Connor Brown on a breakaway and beat goalie Jonathan Bernier with a wrist shot over his glove.

"He's got a ton of power," Gionta said. "His first three strides he looks even with a guy and then he just takes off. Trying to utilize that, whether it looks like a guy is tied on him, you know that he can pull away from him so you're more likely to get him the puck."

Eichel's abilities already have gotten his teammates to take notice of him. And his linemates, regardless of who they are, are excited to play with him.

"I think obviously his talent [sets him apart]. That's first and foremost," Kane said Wednesday. "You don't see that kind of talent come up too often. I think his skating ability is a big thing for him. When he's skating, that's when he's playing his best. When he's not moving his feet, just like a lot of guys, especially myself, you're not playing your best. But when he's skating, he's moving and he's shooting, he's hard to handle and hard to stop at 18. I think his demeanor and just his competitiveness that he has helps him a lot and fuels it to an even higher level."

Eichel's debut comes after the Sabres finished 30th in the League standings the past two seasons. After so much losing and not a lot of goal scoring -- the Sabres scored 303 non-shootout goals the past two seasons -- expectations are high for Eichel to help turn things around quickly.

"Anytime you're coming in and you're a top pick, you're obviously going to a bad team unless there's a big trade that happens," said Kane, the fourth pick in the 2009 draft by the Atlanta Thrashers. "You're going to be looked upon to definitely help right away and early on, but fortunately in this situation we have a lot of new guys that are coming in along with him.

"The biggest thing is it's just so much harder to score at the NHL level than in college or in junior. You'll figure that out pretty early. It's a lot harder to score. [NHL] Goalies are so much better than junior goalies or college goalies and there's just such a big gap in between goaltending. That's kind of the first thing when you get to camp, you realize that."

With expectations comes attention and Eichel already has gotten a lot of that before and during training camp. Now with the season about to begin, the attention paid to his play will grow. And with it comes one more responsibility: determining how not to let it get to him.

"Obviously he's gotten a lot of attention, obviously he's gotten a lot of questions about [himself] and how he's doing and when he's doing it and where he's doing it and there's a lot of those questions. But I'm not sure if he feels it yet," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said Wednesday. "I hope he doesn't feel it. I hope he's kind of ignorant to all the talk because it really is outside his sphere.

"It's really outside our team even though it gets asked every day. And even though it's out there it really is outside our sphere and his sphere and he doesn't need to worry about it; his comparisons to [2015 first pick] Connor McDavid and his comparisons to his daily activity if he has a good game or a bad game or a good shift or bad shift. It's going to be analyzed but it's outside him; it's outside our group."

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