Despite five strong seasons in the National Hockey League to start his career, Buffalo Sabres captain Jack Eichel has yet to have a winning season and make an appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
For a second consecutive season, the Sabres got off to a hot start, jumping out as one of the top teams in the league. However, things fell apart for the Sabres as the seasons ran their course and the would miss the playoff picture by quite a bit.
The one constant for the Sabres, however, was the All-Star level play of Eichel, who has combined for 160 points (64+96) in 145 games played. Just this past season, Eichel set a career-high in goals (36), and also averaged the highest points-per-game average (1.15) in his career. He missed just one game in the coronavirus pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, and still managed to put up 78 points in that span, while setting a pace of 93 points.
While his play has been able to put the Sabres in contention for many games this season, it could only carry the team so far over the course of the season. Buffalo ended the 2019-20 season with a 30-31-8 record with 68 points in the standings, which was only good enough for 13th place in the Eastern Conference. The Sabres just missed out on the 24-team Return To Play format this year, and have now officially missed out on the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season.
This has led to some frustration boiling over from the Sabres' fanbase, as well as the Buffalo captain, who has had enough of the team's slump.
"Listen, I'm fed up with the losing and I'm fed up that I'm frustrated. It's definitely not an easy pill to swallow right now," Eichel shared with the Buffalo media on Thursday during his end-of-season press conference. "It's been a tough couple months, it's been a tough five years with where things have went. I'm a competitor. I want to win every time I'm on the ice. I want to win the Stanley Cup every time I start a season. I've already started preparing for next season now. I'm already back on the ice, I'm already training , I'm already doing things to try and better myself for start of next season, whenever that is. I'd be lying if I said that I'm not getting frustrated with where things are going. I think we took a step this year... but yeah, I'm definitely not in the greatest place with where the last little bit went. It's definitely worn on me."
Buffalo's record with Eichel on the roster since being drafted second overall in the 2015 NHL Draft has been 156-198-53, with the team's best season coming in his rookie year in 2015-16 when the team went 35-36-11. Since finishing in last place in his third season, the Sabres have slightly improved over the past two seasons, but not to the likings of many fans, and players alike in the Buffalo locker room.
This season was another slight step up the standings with their 25th place finish in the overall standings. However, what Eichel saw from his team was only a slight improvement from, what he believes, can be a better squad.
"I thought we made a lot of steps, but we're not where we want to be right now. Obviously we didn't make the appropriate steps, that's what the frustrating part is, and that's what you have to swallow," Eichel said. "You don't do enough during the season and you don't get to move on. I thought our consistency of play got better, but it's still not where it needs to be. Maybe game-to-game it was one of the places that improved. I thought we've gotten better at finding ways to give ourselves a chance when we're not at our best, but unfortunately our group we had a lot of lapses. Whether it would be for 10 minutes in a game or a period or a period-and-a-half, it seemed like in those lapses we would hand the game away and it came back to haunt us. The elite teams in the league don't do that, and you need to find a way clean that up. You know you're not going to play 60 minutes for 82 games exactly the way you want throughout the whole season, but limiting the amount of errors that you make and the amount of errors that are costly and in the back of the net are the big things that really need to improve for our group."
One area of Buffalo's game that Eichel thinks has to improve and develop some consistency for net season is the team's ability to hold on to a lead and solidify their play when it matters most.
"I think you look around the league and you see some of these veteran teams that win a lot of those tight games that we're playing against them. We, unfortunately, end up on the wrong side of it a lot of times, and it goes back to experience and being able to be comfortable in that situation," Eichel said. "Whether it's up a goal late in a game, down a goal, whatever it may be, those tight checking games that there doesn't seem like a whole lot going on the better teams in the league just stick with their game and a lot of is it to not make a mistake. I feel like we've been trying to get better at that. It's what separates the best teams in the league from the middle of the pack and the bottom of the pack with that ability to be good on the nights when you might not have it. We have a young group. We need to start figuring that out soon and figuring out how to do that. It's one thing to be in a tight game, and it's another thing to win them."
As for Eichel himself, he felt comfortable with his own game this season playing along Sam Reinhart once again on his right wing, and having Victor Olofsson come into his own on his left side.
"I had the opportunity to play with two linemates through the majority of the season and I thought that we built pretty good chemistry," Eichel said. "Unfortunately we know that Victor [Olofsson] got hurt for a little bit, but even through that stretch, I felt that whoever was paired with 'Reino' [Sam Reinhart] and I did a tremendous job. I just think the consistency and being a year older, a little more mature, I think it allowed me to take my game to another level. I learn things every season that I try and take with me into the offseason and better myself going into the next year."
One theme that has been talked about over the past couple of days when talking with many players on the roster is the leadership of the group, and the person right in the middle of that conversation is Eichel. He's been captain for the past two seasons, but many of his teammates have already seen the growth in his leadership capabilities. For some, they even compared his leadership skills to those of Michael Jordan, as was seen in the documentary "The Last Dance" on ESPN.
Kyle Okposo was one player who was very high on Eichel on Wednesday, saying that he is going to develop into a top-tier captain in the NHL.
When Eichel was asked about what he teammates had to say, he came off as very modest, and also said pulled from some of what Jordan said in the documentary that speaks to him.
"Obviously the compliments are extremely humbling, especially to hear it from your teammates means a lot to me," Eichel said. "I take a lot of pride in trying to be a good leader on the team. Sometimes you have to be hard on people, but I think to take away from 'The Last Dance', you see how much Jordan cared about being the best, how much he cared about winning. It seemed like nothing else mattered, and he didn't let anything else get in his way. He says it multiple times throughout the documentary is 'win at all costs, no matter what it took.' He's just, arguably, one of the greatest competitors, one of the greatest winners, if not the greatest winner of all-time. There's probably a few up there with him like Bill Russell, Tiger Woods. You think about the way he handled himself on and off the basketball court - people like to look at his gambling and his off-court things, but he was also the hardest worker off the court... His commitment to winning and his commitment to being the best is incredible. You can't say enough about his competitive nature.
"I think you have to understand your teammates, their personalities, who you can push, who you can get on, who you can't, who you need to bring along. It takes a lot to do that," Eichel said. "I think I try to do what needs to be done. I'm the farthest thing from a finished product as a leader or a player, but you just try to use your experience to better you and that's what I try to do."
When it comes to the leader that Eichel had become over the course of the season, he attributed the growth of his role as the captain of the Sabres to head coach Ralph Krueger, and gave his first-year bench boss some high praise for not only his leadership, but also how he's interacted with the team.
"Just being around him every day, the way he handles himself and being able to learn from him, being able to build a relationship and go to him for things and advice. I think it's been so big for me," Eichel said. "He's one of the greatest natural-born leaders that I've ever been around on a day-to-day basis. The way that he looks at life, never mind hockey. It's been a pleasure working with him, and I couldn't be happier to have him as a coach.
"He does so much for our group every day. There are tough times and he does an amazing job of bringing us back in and narrowing our focus, getting us back to where we need to be mentally. Just the few times that I've spoke with him throughout this quarantine, or whatever you want to call it, it's been good."
As for the direction of this offseason, Eichel was asked about what needs to be added to the roster going forward to possibly help the Sabres finally become a playoff team. While he said that he will leave the roster building to general manager Jason Botterill, there are certain pieces that can be added to help the team compete in the 2020-21 season.
"We just need to get better," Eichel said. "These teams, especially in our division, are deep. It was a lot of really hard matchups, so I think just adding depth, veterans and some toughness would help."
Eichel also said on Thursday that he has already started to skate, and he has been working out already in preparation for next season.
However, there is some physical matters that Eichel may have to still address before the start of the year. Over the course of the 2019-20 season, Eichel was dealing with a lingering injury that was obvious in some of his play on the ice. At a point later in the season, he had stopped taking faceoffs for a stretch of games in order to diminish the wear-and-tear on his body.
While the injury was hampering his play a bit, Eichel felt it was no excuse to take some time off to rest and heal.
"I obviously dealt with some things last year, and unfortunately with the way that the season was going, I didn't necessarily think I could take the time off in the situation that we were in and just trying to win every game," Eichel said. "We were trying to be as competitive as we can, and I feel like my job was to be on the ice. The extended time off is frustrating that we're not going to play hockey for a while, but it's a good opportunity to try and get as healthy as possible and really try to dig in and improve your game as much as you can.
In terms of the injury with the way that the quarantine has been going and the inability to seek treatment or whatever that might be, there's obviously still some lingering things that need to be taken care of. We have a lot of time at this point, so hopefully it will be taken care of soon."
You can listen to Eichel's entire press conference below: