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Camp Preview: Eichel will look to build on strong finish

Center performed at a point-per-game pace over his last 50 games

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

For all the changes made to the Buffalo Sabres' roster over the past four months, count on one aspect of the lineup to remain very much the same in 2018-19: Jack Eichel, turning 22 in October and already in his fourth NHL season, will continue to shoulder more responsibility as the team's top center.

Eichel returns donning a new number on his sweater - he switched to the No. 9 he wore in college at Boston University and with Team USA - and largely with a new cast of teammates surrounding him. He'll look to build on his strong finish from last season, when he performed at a point-per-game pace over his last 50 games, with hopes of influencing change in the standings. 

If his comments from the locker cleanout day are any indication, he's ready for the challenge. 

"It's been a tough three years, but I'm fully invested in this team, this organization, this city," Eichel said in April. "I'm here for a while. I'm excited about it. I'm excited about the future. I think things will get better, and it starts with me."

Video: 2018-19 Season Teaser

Eichel already saw his role increase last season, averaging a career-high 20:09 of ice time. That number could rise even more in the absence of Ryan O'Reilly, who was perennially one of the NHL's ice time leaders at forward during his three seasons with the Sabres.  

As Eichel's responsibilities rose, so did his production. Despite missing 15 games with a high-ankle sprain, he still managed to set career-highs in goals (25) and points (64). He was the youngest player to lead the Sabres in goals, assists and points since Pierre Turgeon in 1989-90. 

It's no stretch to say that Eichel was among the league's most productive forwards beginning on Dec. 15, when he scored his first career hat trick against the Carolina Hurricanes. He scored 29 points (14+15) in 22 games from that point until injuring his ankle on Feb. 10, tied for third in the NHL in that span. 

That production was largely influenced by his play at even strength. Eichel's 22 goals and 42 points at even strength were both personal bests, surpassing the 81-game totals of 16 goals and 35 points he posted as a rookie in 2015-16. 

Video: CAR@BUF: Eichel records his first career hat trick

The additions made in the summer should only help Eichel's cause. Conor Sheary and Jeff Skinner have both established reputations as strong skaters with scoring touches. The former has already excelled alongside a superstar center in Sidney Crosby; the latter has showed he can score without one. It's easy to picture either play settling in on Eichel's left wing. 

"You bring in a guy like Skinner, he brings a lot of speed to our team and a skill element that maybe we've been lacking, similar to Sheary," Eichel said following a skate at Harborcenter last week. 

Skinner and Sheary are among a group of offseason acquisitions by the Sabres that also includes Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson and Matt Hunwick. Given the circumstances of last season, Eichel said that no move came as a surprise.  

"I think whenever you have as little success as we had last year that change is expected," Eichel said. "I think it's for the better. You bring some fresh faces in, some guys who don't have sour tastes from the last few years, and it seems like the environment's a little bit different so I'm excited for camp and getting things going."

But while newcomers will change the composition of the dressing room, mainstays like Eichel, Kyle Okposo and Rasmus Ristolainen -  among others - have an opportunity to set the tone. It begins with the first day of training camp. 

"You don't want to go out of the gate slow, so it's important that we're well-conditioned, we're ready to play at the end of October," he said. "The harder the camp, I think the better for us."
 

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