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Sabres' Eichel center of attention on first day of camp

by Joe Yerdon / NHL.com

BUFFALO -- When Jack Eichel, the second pick of the 2015 NHL Draft, took his first strides on the ice at First Niagara Center on Monday during the first day of Buffalo Sabres development camp, he was greeted by a chorus of cheers and a line of cameras eager to capture the moment.

"It was pretty cool," he said. "It was definitely kind of a special moment. It was a great feeling to finally be out there, just get skating again. A little bit of rust, but it was just great to be on the ice."

Eichel, who signed his three-year, entry-level contract July 1, was part of the first group of Sabres prospects to take the ice and go through various practice drills with Buffalo coaches. Being greeted by a crowd of more than 1,000 fans didn't catch Eichel off guard.

"Not [surprised] in Buffalo," Eichel said. "I figured that there'd be a lot of people here for a practice open to the public. I'm not surprised at all with the turnout."

With the draft behind him, development camp is the next step on Eichel's road to the NHL. He's joined in camp by the second pick from the 2014 draft, center Sam Reinhart. Eichel and Reinhart are roommates during the weeklong camp.

"[The attention] doesn't stop, and he knows that," Reinhart said. "I didn't know him before this week, and watching him go through all that draft stuff, he handled it phenomenally. He's a mature guy and he knows exactly how to conduct himself both on and off the ice. And at the end of the day, his on-ice stuff does reflect off the ice as well."

Eichel and Reinhart played against each other during the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship. Reinhart and Canada defeated Eichel and the United States 5-3 during the preliminary round of the tournament. Canada went on to win the gold medal, and the U.S. finished fifth.

"There's not much you can say," Reinhart said. "I think we were matched up, if you can even say that, in that game. There weren't really matchups; it was kind of a scramble. But we did see each other a lot. There's no question we battled out there. He's not the easiest guy to contain down low. I'm getting to know him very well this week. He's a great guy. I've known him for a couple of days now, so to see both sides of it, and unfortunately I'm not on his team this week, but hopefully that changes soon."

Among the other prospects at development camp was Evan Rodrigues, Eichel's teammate at Boston University last season. Rodrigues signed with the Sabres on April 22.

"I actually feel kind of bad for [Eichel], because I don't think he's stopped since the season ended," Rodrigues said. "He was overseas for the [2015 IIHF] World Championship and then going through all the draft stuff. I felt kind of bad for him. But now that he's here he's going to get comfortable. It's great being back on the ice and playing next to him."

Eichel was the first player from the 2015 draft class to sign his NHL contract, deciding on professional hockey rather than returning to college for another season. With the contract out of the way, getting back on the ice became Eichel's priority.

"It's tough when you're doing that to get into a routine of skating and working out, getting comfortable somewhere," Eichel said. "Now that development camp's here, I'm back on the ice, back working out every day, trying just to get acclimated to one place."

Eichel led all NCAA players with 71 points in 40 games last season; his 1.77 points-per-game average was the best by a college freshman since Paul Kariya's 2.56 in 1992-93 at the University of Maine. Eichel joined Kariya as the only freshmen to win the Hobey Baker Award as the top NCAA player.

Transitioning from college to the pros can be difficult, especially when there are high hopes for success right away.

"It's the first taste of being someone who is highly touted, I would say," Eichel said. "People have been talking. Obviously there's a lot of expectations around me, but it's something I try not to focus on. I'm just trying to go out there, be myself on the ice every day, try to get better, be myself around the guys in the locker room. I think that's what's made me successful and the person that I am."

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