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Eichel, Sabres set for fresh start

Center hopeful coaching, GM changes will help end playoff drought

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

BOSTON -- Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel is sick of losing. He's tired of watching other teams and players, especially his peers, pass him and the Sabres by. 

Connor McDavid, the only player selected before Eichel in the 2015 NHL Draft, took the Edmonton Oilers to the Western Conference Second Round last season and won the Hart Trophy. Auston Matthews, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, helped the Toronto Maple Leafs to their first Stanley Cup Playoff appearance since 2013 and won the Calder Trophy.

Meanwhile, Eichel, entering his third NHL season and reportedly negotiating terms on an eight-year contract extension that would begin next season, has played two losing seasons with the Sabres. After last season, the Sabres fired coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Tim Murray, replacing them with Phil Housley and Jason Botterill.

"It's all new," said Eichel, who declined to discuss the contract negotiations. 

Video: 31 in 31: Buffalo Sabres 2017-18 season preview

And so too is Eichel's hope for the Sabres, for what may be to come this season and beyond, such as ending Buffalo's playoff drought at six seasons.

Eichel, who had 57 points (24 goals, 33 assists) in 61 games last season, isn't making any predictions, but his optimism was evident last month at the Commonwealth Avenue Charity Hockey Game at Boston University, where he played one season before arriving in Buffalo.

"We think we can be really good," Eichel said. "We think we can be a playoff team. That's what's important. We have to go into training camp with the right mindset, get the season off and running, put our best foot forward."

 

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Eichel, who will turn 21 on Oct. 28, has to take the first step.

The Sabres appear to need a captain with Brian Gionta unsigned and unlikely to return. It may be premature to give Eichel the honor and everything it represents, but captain or not, he's the face of the Sabres, and the pressure is on him to blaze the trail back to the playoffs.

"I think that that next step in terms of being a dominant player and a leader on our team with more of an impact, it should be there next season," Eichel said. "Some of us are getting older and we should start building more confidence in ourselves and start expecting more out of ourselves."

It's Housley's job to get more out of Eichel and, of course, the Sabres. To do that, establishing a strong relationship with Eichel must be one of his top priorities early in training camp, which begins next month.

Following the season, a Buffalo radio station reported that Eichel would not sign a long-term contract with the Sabres if Bylsma remained the coach. On April 19, Eichel denied there was a rift between him and Bylsma, who was fired, along with Murray, the next day.

"I think it was a good time for a fresh start for everyone and to be able to not have to worry about the opinions that were already formed," Eichel said. "It's good for a lot of guys in the room. People are excited.

"Guys are going to respect [Housley and Botterill]."

Housley said his relationship with Eichel should start in a good place because they already have something in common. Like Eichel now, more than three decades ago it was Housley who represented a big part of the Sabres' future as the young, highly touted top draft pick (No. 6 in 1982) who rapidly ascended to prominence in the organization before his 21st birthday.

"I think with Jack, he could be a really big influence on other players around him," Housley said. "He has that aura around him that he's one of the top players in the League. I just want him to play. Play the game and don't worry about any distractions.

"There are so many demands on you as a player, especially having a big impact on an organization. It seems like everybody wants a piece of you, but that's why I'm going to try to make it comfortable for the players so they can just come to the rink, enjoy coming to the rink every day. There are going to be ups and downs, we know that, but as long as they can enjoy coming to the rink every day, I think that's a great feeling."

That feeling wasn't there for Eichel last season. It hasn't been there with any level of consistency in his brief NHL career because the Sabres have been a losing team that regressed in his second season.

Eichel thinks he can discover that feeling this season. He's certainly sick of that other feeling, of watching the parade go by.

"We have a new GM, new coaches, so it's a new situation for all of us and we have to look at it with the right mindset," Eichel said. "No bad relationships. No opinions. It's important for a lot of guys who might have been on the wrong foot."

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