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Eichel among NHL's most productive players as of late

Okposo to miss Saturday's game

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

When looking back at Jack Eichel's return from the high-ankle sprain that delayed the beginning of his sophomore season, it's mostly positives that stick out. The Sabres won the first two games Eichel played in, and he scored three goals and an assist in what were arguably two of his most memorable performances yet, given the circumstances.

When Eichel looks back on the time immediately following his injury, however, he says he wasn't quite where he wanted to be. The same couldn't be said right now.

"I think, after a little bit, your ankle starts to feel better, you start feeling better again, you start making plays and you get back to the way you want to play," Eichel said following practice at HarborCenter on Friday. "I just feel better. I feel like I've been doing what I can do."

The numbers don't lie: Eichel has been one of the NHL's most productive players since the beginning of February, if not longer. He's tied with Chicago's Patrick Kane for the most points in the League since Feb. 1 with 19, and he leads all players with 16 assists in that same span of time. 

He's also become nearly a point per game player in the process. Eichel's mark of .93 in that category ranks 13th in the NHL, placing in elite company. You could field an All-Star team out of the names behind him: Vladimir Tarasenko, Joe Pavelski, Alexander Ovechkin, Auston Matthews … the list goes on.

Eichel admitted it's probably the best stretch of hockey he's played since entering the NHL, but he also said he isn't satisfied. When the team loses, you can see the frustration in his face. Even after a win against Arizona on Thursday, Eichel was disappointed that the team has surrendered a late lead.

"I just think there's always that level, and I think that you can never be satisfied," he said. "That's kind of the mindset I try and take and it's been pretty good. Obviously I think that there's been times where I can be a little too hard on myself, but I guess that's the nature of it."

So, what is the next level for Jack Eichel? At the outset of the season, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said it would be fun to watch and see where Eichel takes his game, whether he leans towards becoming an elite playmaker with the puck - his natural tendency - or toward becoming an elite goal scorer. 

Through 43 games, he's done a good deal of both. Eichel has 25 assists compared to 15 goals, and many of his "wow" moments on the ice come when he's distributing the puck. But he also leads the entire NHL with four shots per game. To put that into context, check out this tweet from ESPN's Corey Pronman: 

Tweet from @coreypronman: Per @hockey_ref, shots/game by 20 year old players over last 30 years. @BuffaloSabres Jack Eichel's name is rather high. pic.twitter.com/c5Ojf0kbzx

Meanwhile, only seven players who played their age 20 seasons in the last 20 years averaged more points per game than Eichel's .93: Sidney Crosby, Ovechkin, Connor McDavid, Steven Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Anze Kopitar. 

"We've talked to Jack about averaging four shots a game for the year and using his shot," Bylsma said. "I think by his nature, he's a playmaker, likes to have the puck on his stick and make plays, and really it's kind of up to him how many goals he's going to get and how often he uses his shot and how he uses his shot."

Eichel said he doesn't expect pass-first mentality to change - it's who he's always been - but he does want to continue improving his ability to get into scoring areas without the puck on his stick. Doing so led to him getting a power-play goal on Thursday, thanks to a heads-up pass from Sam Reinhart at the net-front.

Video: ARI@BUF: Eichel finishes Reinhart's nice dish for PPG

"I'm a pass-first guy," Eichel said. "I get pucks in the shooting lane, shooting area a lot of times and I'm looking to make a play. When I get the puck, my first instinct is usually to pass. I've been lucky, a lot of good passes on the power play, a lot of good passes from [Reinhart], just trying to get around the net.

"I think that's something I can do better, still, going forward. You see some of the best goal scorers in the League, they score a lot of goals within 10 feet of the net. Whether it's rebounds or making quick little plays around the net, they score a lot there. I think that's definitely something I need to continue to get better at, getting to the net, making myself available, capitalizing on those second and third opportunities."

While Eichel's offensive prowess has been evident since he scored in his NHL debut last season, Bylsma said the true mark of his improvement from here on out might come on the other end of the ice. It's an area he's improved already, the coach said, but hopes to improve upon further with more experience.

"He's worked hard on both sides of the puck. Playing defense, defensive positioning, being a reliable and steady guy in the defensive zone," Bylsma said. "I think his game has come miles in that regard since last year and even this year. 

"The next level for Jack is being a guy who can play on both sides of the puck, 200-feet game, be reliable and strong defensively and also be a guy who lugs the mail and is offensive on the other end of the rink."

Ask Eichel, and you can bet he'd agree. After all, you can never be satisfied. 

 

Friday's practice

Video: Sabres in :90 (3/3/17)

Kyle Okposo was absent after leaving the game in the second period on Sunday with an injury to his rib area. Bylsma did not have an update on his status other than to say he would not be playing in Buffalo's game against Tampa Bay on Saturday.

Robin Lehner was also absent from practice, although Bylsma said the absence was excused and not injury related. He'll start one of Buffalo's back-to-back games on Saturday or Sunday and Anders Nilsson will start the other.

Here's how Buffalo's lines stacked up in full on Friday:

9 Evander Kane - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 12 Brian Gionta
82 Marcus Foligno - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
63 Tyler Ennis - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 26 Matt Moulson
56 Justin Bailey - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 44 Nicolas Deslauriers

Defensemen: 29 Jake McCabe, 55 Rasmus Ristolainen, 77 Dmitry Kulikov, 47 Zach Bogosian, 4 Josh Gorges, 6 Cody Franson, 41 Justin Falk

31 Anders Nilsson

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