It wasn't too long ago that Jack Eichel was an 18 year old beginning his NHL career, carrying the weight of being the No. 2 overall pick for a franchise that had experienced two straight last-place finishes. His defining quality off the ice might have been his sense of humor, which he wasn't afraid to show.
Nowadays, Eichel is the 22-year-old captain of a team with another uber-talented 18 year old on its roster. That sense of humor is still there, but listening to Rasmus Dahlin describe Eichel on Wednesday offered a glimpse into how things have changed.
"He's very serious," the rookie defenseman said. "He's passionate about the game and a great leader. Great guy and sick on the ice, of course. … He's a leader. I think he was born a leader. He's the guy who needs the 'C.'"
In every sense, Eichel has embraced the responsibilities that come with being a captain and the face of an organization. He's set the tone with this work in games and in practices and made it a point to further his impact in the community.
Through 31 games, it's all culminated into the best season of Eichel's young career. First, a look at the numbers:
• With 10 goals and 28 assists, he's on pace to record the first 100-point season for the Sabres since Pat LaFontaine and Alexander Mogilny did so in 1992-93. No Sabre has even reached the 90-point mark since Daniel Briere in 2006-07.
• Eichel's on pace for 74 points at even strength, which would rank third in franchise history behind LaFontaine and Mogilny's marks of 83 and 78, respectively, in 1992-93.
Here's the list of players who have eclipsed 74 even-strength points in a single season since the 2004 lockout: Connor McDavid (84 in 2017-18), Henrik Sedin (83 in 2009-10), Evgeni Malkin (75 in 2011-12) and Alexander Ovechkin (75 in 2007-08).
• All of this has come despite an uncharacteristically low shooting percentage of 7.2, two percent lower than Eichel's career average. He leads the NHL with 138 shots, and they've begun to fall as of late, with five of his 10 goals having come in his last three games.
What's attributed to the consistent production? Age and experience, of course, as well as healthy contributions from linemates Jeff Skinner, Sam Reinhart and Jason Pominville. But the first word that came to mind when Eichel was asked on Wednesday was "work."
"I feel like I've made a conscious effort to just try and work," he said. "I think that when you're working, things come from it. It's that and just trying to be confident with making plays, just let my instincts take over. Obviously when I'm moving my feet, I think I'm playing my best so for me, it's just about worrying about the next game, doing everything I can now to play my next game at the best of my ability.
"I would just say that. It's been more consistent this year where I've been happier with myself after games, where I'm not questioning my game as much. I know I've just recently started to score but I felt like I was due for it with the amount of chances I was getting."
When Eichel was named captain at the end of training camp, Kyle Okposo offered this recipe for success: "As long as he's the hardest working guy day-in and day-out, he's going to be just fine. I have no doubt that he's going to be." Former Sabres captains Michael Peca and Danny Gare echoed those comments.
Watching these first 31 games, it's easy to see that the young forward has taken that responsibility to heart. The sight of him catching up to opponents with lesser skating ability on a backcheck has become a recurring image:
He's also more active than ever battling along the boards, where his combination of strength and skill makes him a difficult opponent.
"He's put the work in from day one, he gets his body ready and he's obviously a big presence," Reinhart said. "I think he's used that more to his advantage this year, just in the battle and protecting pucks. It's always been part of his game but as he matures a little more, you can just see the dominant force that he brings on a nightly basis."
For an example of Eichel's relentless work ethic, look no further than the third period of Buffalo's comeback win over Los Angeles on Thursday. Eichel played the entirety of an unsuccessful power play that ended with 27 seconds left in regulation. When the opportunity came for a change, he not only took it upon himself to finish the period, he did this to draw another penalty:
Eichel assisted on Skinner's winning goal on the ensuing power play in overtime. He finished with 10 shots, two points and a career-high 25:57 of ice time.
"He wants to win so bad and he wants to make a difference," Sabres coach Phil Housley said of that final shift in regulation. "… He's just trying to make a difference out there."
Housley credited Eichel with being the one who typically starts the drills at practice and sets the tempo with his work. It's common to hear him dish praise upon a teammate for a good play they made.
"With the leadership responsibility, you have to be ready to play every night," Eichel said. "You can't take nights off, you can't take practices off, you can't take days off. It has to be a constant, everyday thing. I've tried to make an effort to do that and bring a good effort every night, because obviously the best way to lead is by example.
"If I'm not working, how can I expect everyone else to work? I think that's been an important thing and an important mindset for me this year. I think it's been pretty contagious. I think our team's worked really hard.
"I think we've come in here with a good attitude every day and tried to get better, and I'm no different. I just try to come to the rink every day with a good attitude and work hard and push each other. I think we've done that."
When Housley, general manager Jason Botterill and owner Terry Pegula met with Eichel to inform him of the captaincy, the four spoke at length about his commitment to the city. He's taken that to new heights, too.
Images floating around on social media pegged Eichel at three different events on Monday alone. He stopped by a bowling event hosted by Best Buddies NY in the afternoon, went to a holiday party for Sabres employees and their families that evening and then went with Reinhart and Nathan Beaulieu to a party hosted by Roswell Park's Courage of Carly Fund.
"You know what, I just enjoy doing that," he said. "You look at the situation and sometimes I just sit back and think about how lucky I am to be doing what I'm doing and playing professional hockey and playing for such a great organization.
"I literally think to myself, I wake up and come to the rink and hang out with all my buddies and play hockey. ... It's a great way to think about it. In terms of the stuff I do off the ice, I've just been trying to become as much a part of this city as I can because this city's done so much for me and welcomed me with open arms.
"I just want to be as influential and make as big as an impact on people outside of the rink as I do at the rink."
Video: Sabres Now (12/12/18)
Marco Scandella, who's missed the last seven games with an upper-body injury, was a full participant at practice. Okposo and Rasmus Ristolainen took maintenance days, but both are expected to play against Arizona on Thursday.
Here's how the Sabres lined up, with Rem Elie taking Okposo's spot up front and Scandella filling in for Ristolainen alongside Lawrence Pilut.
53 Jeff Skinner - 9 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
43 Conor Sheary - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 81 Remi Elie 53 Jeff Skinner - 9 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
43 Conor Sheary - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 81 Remi Elie
72 Tage Thompson - 17 Vladimir Sobotka - 29 Jason Pominville
71 Evan Rodrigues - 22 Johan Larsson - 28 Zemgus Girgensons
6 Marco Scandella - 24 Lawrence Pilut
26 Rasmus Dahlin - 4 Zach Bogosian
82 Nathan Beaulieu - 5 Matt Tennyson
40 Carter Hutton
35 Linus Ullmark