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Good stats not good enough for Jack Eichel

Second-year center focused on making Sabres better, reaching Stanley Cup Playoffs

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

DETROIT -- The sigh said so much.

Before he scored in the Buffalo Sabres' 2-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings on Monday, center Jack Eichel was asked what he would take away from this season. He didn't talk about how he had come back from a high-ankle sprain sustained the day before the season opener to become one of the most productive players in the NHL.

He talked about how the Sabres had stumbled out of their five-day break in February, setting themselves up to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time since they selected him No. 2 in the 2015 NHL Draft and for the sixth consecutive season.

He took a deep breath. He exhaled.

"Frustrating more than anything," Eichel said. "Want to be a playoff team. Want to play in the playoffs, get a taste of it. It's tough when you don't get there."

At 20, Eichel is going through what many elite players do at his age: learning how to use his skill within a team structure at the NHL level. He is not warm and fuzzy by nature, and that can rub people the wrong way at times.

But coach Dan Bylsma said what really has struck him about Eichel through the process was how he "takes ownership in [the Sabres] winning hockey games and not him getting points or where he stands in the world of hockey."

"It's something that he carries with him every time he steps on the ice," Bylsma said.

Eichel had a strong rookie season with 56 points (24 goals, 32 assists) in 81 games and finished fourth in voting for the Calder Trophy. He played for Team North America in the World Cup of Hockey 2016 as one of the top players 23 and younger from Canada and the United States.

But on Oct. 12, he got tangled with teammate Zemgus Girgensons during a power-play drill at practice. His left leg rolled underneath him as he fell backward. He screamed and writhed on the ice.

Video: BUF@DET: Eichel tallies PPG with wicked one-timer

He missed 21 games.

A high-ankle sprain is a miserable injury for an athlete, especially one who depends on speed and agility. When he returned against the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 29, Eichel played through pain. Even though he said he started to feel better after the Christmas break and considers himself 100 percent now, he still can feel it.

Since making his season debut, Eichel is tied for eighth in the NHL in scoring with 50 points (21 goals, 29 assists) in 52 games and is first in shots on goal with 207. Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, the player selected ahead of Eichel in the 2015 draft and the League's leading scorer, has 53 points (15 goals, 38 assists) in that time.

Since Feb. 1, Eichel is second in the NHL with 29 points (nine goals, 20 assists) in 24 games, one point behind Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane, who won the Hart Trophy as most valuable player and the Art Ross Trophy as scoring champion last season.

"You do the math," said Red Wings center Dylan Larkin, who played with Eichel at USA Hockey's National Team Development Program and on Team North America. "It's a heck of a season."

Eichel is averaging 0.96 points per game, 11th in the League among players with more than 17 games played. That projects to 79 points (33 goals, 46 assists) for 82 games.

"It's a sign of kind of his growth as a player," Bylsma said. "He's leaps and bounds ahead of where he was last year the start of the year, and that's not just in his offensive game. It's in his whole game."

Video: BUF@SJS: Moulson, Eichel combine for opening goal

Eichel scored on the power play in the first period Monday, sweeping a one-timer from the top of the left circle past Red Wings goaltender Petr Mrazek. A few minutes later he backchecked and broke up a pass Henrik Zetterberg tried to send to Gustav Nyquist in the Sabres' zone.

"He wants to win badly," Sabres left wing Matt Moulson said. "He's skating all the time, wants the puck, wants to make plays."

The Sabres power play and goaltending have been excellent this season, but their penalty-killing and puck management have not. The Sabres have endured injuries and inconsistency; defeating playoff teams, losing to teams out of the race, building leads and blowing them. Their 72 points are the third-fewest in the Eastern Conference entering their home game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; MSG-B, ROOT, NHL.TV).

"We're young," Eichel said. "We have a lot of good young players on the team. I think we're headed in the right direction. I think that we just need to get there. I think that we need to make that next step."

While Bylsma and general manager Tim Murray have work to do, how do the players do that?

By taking ownership. By carrying it with them.

"We come to the rink every day and work hard and try to get better, and you don't see the results you want," Eichel said. "It's a bit frustrating, but I think that as players everyone just needs to look in the mirror and become a better hockey player. If you have high expectations, all you can do is just improve yourself. It's all I'm going to try and do. I hope everyone takes the same mindset."

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