Jack Eichel and Evan Rodrigues stood next to each other on the ice at First Niagara Center during the late moments of practice on Monday afternoon, their first of Development Camp and their first as members of the Buffalo Sabres organization.
The level of comfort between the two former Boston University teammates – whether they were paired during drills or chatting in-between them – was a rare sight for the opening day of an NHL Development Camp.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s helped smooth the transition into the League for Eichel, the Sabres top draft pick of 2015.
“It’s great to have him here,” Eichel said of Rodrigues. “Obviously we went through a lot this year together, played with him, really familiar sitting next to him in the locker room. It’s nice to know somebody that well and have them here to kind of go through this [together.]”
Eichel’s relationship with Rodrigues, whom he calls one of smartest players he’s ever played alongside, might be the only semblance of comfort that the 18-year-old has felt in a two-month whirlwind that started with the Frozen Four in Boston and continued overseas for the IIHF World Championship.
Then it was off to Buffalo for the NHL Scouting Draft Combine at the beginning of June and then to south Florida for the NHL Draft, where he was selected No. 2 overall by the Sabres. Now he’s back in the Queen City for Development Camp, which runs through Sunday at First Niagara Center.
“I actually feel kind of bad for him,” Rodrigues said. “I don’t think he’s stopped and been in one place at one time for more than a week since the season ended.”
“That’s what I’m telling a lot of people,” Eichel said, echoing his teammate’s sentiment. “I don’t think I’ve been in one spot for more than a week in the last month and a half so I feel like I’ve been bouncing everywhere. It’s tough when you’re doing that to get into a routine of skating and working out and getting comfortable somewhere.”
Development Camp, Eichel says, will offer him his first real chance to get back into his preferred routine of everyday workouts and ice time. It’s a chance to settle into his new home and spend the summer improving as he heads into his rookie season.
Now one day in, Eichel is trying to be himself in the locker room and mesh with the other young players who have been brought out to camp. It’s a process, he says, but one that he expects to go smoothly as the week rolls on.
“It’s the first day, we don’t really know each other that well and [we are] a little bit unfamiliar and a little bit uncomfortable on the ice,” he said. “You have new gloves on, maybe new pants, everyone’s kind of a little hesitant maybe at first. But I think as the week goes on, people start to loosen up and get more comfortable around everyone and I think that’s when people start playing their best hockey.”
Eichel may not have yet been afforded a chance to settle into Buffalo, but he’s already become familiar with the area and the people who live in it. As he skated onto the First Niagara Center ice for the first time on Monday afternoon, he was greeted with an applause that didn’t surprise him.
“Not in Buffalo,” he said. “I figured there would be a lot of people here for practice open to the public and I’m not surprised at all on the turnout.”
With the amount of anticipation that has been building for Eichel’s arrival in Buffalo, the cheers will likely be his quickest acclimation. But, still only one day into practice, he wants to wait before being labeled with superstar status.
“It’s the first taste of being somebody who is highly touted I guess you could say,” he said. “People have been talking and there’s a lot of expectation around me but it’s something I really try not to focus on.
“I’m just trying to go out there, be myself on the ice every day, try to get better as I said earlier [and] be myself around the guys in the locker room. That’s what’s made me successful and that’s the person that I am.”