November 29, 2016 in Ottawa - A date that we can reflect on as Sabres fans, employees and broadcasters as the day we started saying quietly to ourselves, "If this team does not make the playoffs, tonight, perhaps, showed us what could have been."
Now that the reality of missing the postseason is here again, in quiet or not-so-quiet reflection by all who were part of this journey in the 2016-17 season, it may be fair to look at where the Sabres may have landed, had an unfair high ankle sprain not felled the team's youngest star player in the making.
I aim to keep this simple. Without Jack Eichel in the lineup to start the season the Sabres offense sputtered for the most part and the team failed to earn the two points up for grabs on 13 of those 21games. With Jack producing at almost a point-per-game pace since his return, one can only imagine if his confidence could have rubbed off on his teammates right out of the gate.
But that is sport. Injuries to key players rarely come at a good time. The worst times, I would imagine for any group sitting in a locker room, drenched in sweat and unable to buy a goal, are at the beginning or end of the season.
We all know that good starts are extremely beneficial to a team's long-term success over an 82-game season. Good starts are not a must, but they do make life a lot easier when the balance of a rough patch sets in and might stall a team's run at the quarter or halfway points of a season.
I reflect back on the having to wait to see what kind of relationship/chemistry newly acquired Kyle Okposo was going to find when playing with Eichel.
Now let's go back to the aforementioned night in Ottawa. Jack assists on Okposo's game opening goal at 6:16 of the first period and then 3:15 later, he scores his first of the season on the power play.
Video: BUF@OTT: Eichel records two points in season debut
Jack and Kyle led the Sabres with five shots on goal each in that 5-4 Sabres win. At the time, we didn't know for sure, but it was a sign of what was to come for #15. And looking back, it's clearly a "what could have been" reflection.
There were - and are always - going to be highs and lows for every player through an 82-game schedule. Jack would be the first to tell you where he needed to be better and where he wished he was better. Those moments will be fewer and farther between as this young man continues to learn his way around the best hockey league in the world.
But I have to think, when the Sabres start next season with Jack in the line up from the first game on, this team will be in a much better place come next April. Don't get me wrong, I get that it takes more than one good or great player to bring a team success. But if you don't have that player to start with, then it's just not going to happen.
The Sabres have their man. He just needs to catch a better break to start the next season. Because Jack has shown - in moments to me at least, when the team needs someone to put them on their shoulders and go out and win a game for them - he clearly has the ability to do so. Be it with a goal or sweet assist as we saw Feb. 7 on a home ice in a third-period rally and win against San Jose.
Jack assisted on Ryan O'Reilly's then-11th goal of the season to cut the Sharks' lead to 4-2 about midway through the third. At the time, it was Buffalo's first goal since San Jose went on a four-goal run after Matt Moulson opened the scoring way back in the first period.
But the energy that slowly crept its way onto the Sabres bench and infiltrated the building was leading those who stayed at KeyBank Center towards witnessing a Buffalo comeback that was capped off with Jack and Evander teaming up in overtime.
Video: Sabres come back from three-goals down, win in OT
Was the season perfect every night, every shift for Jack? No, it was not. Did we get a good preview over this past season to see what Jack Eichel can be in this league if he wants to be?! I think we did.
The rest is up to him, both on and off the ice. How will he decide to lead? Who will he emulate when it comes to being a pro and doing all the little things the proper way, in not just being a good player or leader now, but for the entirety of his career?
I look forward to witnessing Jack's next step in this game. I can only assume opposing players and coaches are going to work all summer when they think of Buffalo, about finding new ways to frustrate him and throw him off his game.
It's what Jack does with the challenge that is the National Hockey League that will ultimately determine where the current era of the Buffalo Sabres go next.