From the time Jack Eichel first put on a Buffalo Sabres sweater, all he's ever wanted to be was a piece to the puzzle. That's what he said on the day of his draft, when the Sabres took him with the No. 2 pick back in June of 2015.
In the two years since, Eichel has been that and more to the city of Buffalo. He started a foundation here and developed a relationship with Roswell Park. He's scored game-winning goals and made highlight-reel plays that push the KeyBank Center crowd into bedlam. He grew through the adversity of his first major injury.
Through it all, one thing became certain. From the time Eichel first sat down with Jason Botterill this summer and his agents began contract negotiations with the Sabres, he let it be known that he wanted to continue being a piece to this puzzle for a long, long time.
On Tuesday night, Eichel got his wish. He and the Sabres agreed to an 8-year contract extension worth $80 million, keeping him in Buffalo through the 2025-26 season.
"This city means so much to me, and I like to think I mean a lot to this city as well," Eichel said during a press conference on Wednesday. "This organization has been nothing but great to me since the first day I walked in the doors.
"… I have nothing but great things to say about Buffalo. I think I really owe it to them and I think I owe it to myself to do something special here with the group of guys that we have in the room and the organization and the people that are here now."
Video: INTERVIEW: Eichel
While both sides worked with the goal of getting a deal done throughout the process, Eichel had said as opening night drew closer that he'd be willing to play out the final year of entry-level contract. He left the negotiating for his agents, he said, leaving his sole focus on the ice.
In the end, Botterill said that both sides compromised to finalize a deal prior to the start of the season. Negotiations picked up on Tuesday until they finally came to an agreement while Eichel was eating dinner with teammates Jake McCabe and Sam Reinhart.
Eichel had been coy with his teammates about the deal, so when he walked outside to take a phone call he came back to find that McCabe and Reinhart had caught wind of the contract on Twitter. The pair laughed and congratulated him.
"When you finally agree to a contract like that, it's pretty emotional," Eichel said. "Just thinking about everything you've gone through in your whole life, being able to agree to something like that, and everything your family's done for you, it was a pretty special moment."
Soon it will be Eichel buying dinner for Reinhart, McCabe and the rest of his teammates, a tradition that comes with a lucrative extension. Eichel said he's been a part of those meals before, and he doesn't expect his teammates to be modest.
Then again, Eichel seems ready for all of the expectations that come with being the highest paid player in Sabres history. He said at the outset of camp that he felt he hadn't accomplished anything in the NHL, a modest self-assessment for a player who finished 12th in points per game at age 20 last season.
He came into his third season with the goal of stepping up as a leader both on and off the ice, and neither the money nor the contract will change that.
"I think with or without the contract, that was my goal coming into camp," Eichel said. "Be a leader, be a guy who people can rely on and try to push our teams and organization to the next level. I want to be that person. I want to take on more responsibilities.
"Obviously when something like this happens, it maximizes that. You could be under more of a microscope but there's so many great people in that room and so many great people in this city and this organization, I just try and be myself and be the best player I can be every day."
At the same time, he doesn't expect the title of captain to be handed to him. Botterill said Wednesday that the Sabres will not name a captain for the start of the season, but Eichel has been a part of a leadership group in camp that's included young players like Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe as well as veterans such as Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo.
"We're very comfortable with our leadership group that we have right now, and Jack's a big part of it," Botterill said. "We don't need Jack to take over the room or take over the organization, and to be honest I don't think that happens very often anymore. I think successful teams have a collaborative model and, just like coaches, you can't have one voice."
And, as Eichel put it, you don't need a letter to be a leader. He'll continue to be a piece to the Sabres' puzzle, albeit a very large one, for this upcoming season and at least eight more after that. It starts Thursday, when Buffalo opens its season against the Montreal Canadiens at KeyBank Center.
With contract questions now behind him, that's really all that matters.
"More than anything," Eichel said, "I'm just excited to lace up my skates and play hockey tomorrow."