The hype has surrounded Jack Eichel since his lone college season at Boston University. The Sabres tanked last year to ensure themselves of acquiring either Eichel or Connor McDavid. And make no mistake, Eichel has lived up to the hype and then some.
His seven points in fourteen games don’t do justice to the kind of game Eichel has been playing for the Sabres. The newly turned 19-year-old is the guy you want with the puck on his stick in crunch time. His vision is out of this world, making crisp, quick passes or lofting the across ice saucer pass. He knows where the puck has to be at all times.
His wicked wrist shot doesn’t hurt either. Goalies can hardly see the puck before it’s behind them. Eichel’s five goals are the early season lead for the Sabres, and there have been some highlight reel ones thrown in there. From his first career goal against the Senators to the one man effort in Columbus, nobody expects Eichel to slow down.
But he isn’t alone.
Three other rookies contribute heavily for Buffalo. Sam Reinhart was the 2nd overall pick in the 2014 draft and like Eichel, played right out of the gate for the Sabres last season. After his nine game experimental period, Buffalo sent him back to his Kootenay Ice club of the WHL. He was clearly not ready to play with the men in the NHL. Reinhart put up 65 points in just 47 games and earned a late season promotion to Rochester.
This season is a different story. Reinhart, the youngest brother of fellow NHL’ers Max and Griffin, showed up to camp with a bigger frame and a body that was ready to compete at a higher level. Like Eichel, the points aren’t coming just yet, with just five in fourteen games. But his play is much more consistent and he is showing that he belongs, giving the Sabres a pair of bookends at 19 and 20 years old. The future is bright in Buffalo.
Shifting back to the blue liners, fellow rookie Jake McCabe joins the crew. The Sabres drafted him out of the University of Wisconsin and the 22-year-old is making his third go-round in Buffalo, playing a combined nine games over the past two seasons. The biggest thing McCabe has done so far this year is giving the defensemen another body until the return of Zach Bogosian.
McCabe’s play has not disappointed one bit. He’s logging over 18 minutes a game and is adjusting greatly to the speed of the game. He’s prone to mistakes, but is learning with each one. As he commits a mistake, it’s usually something you won’t see again from McCabe. He has a booming shot from the point and has already netted two goals this year, being the only defenseman other than Rasmus Ristolainen to light the lamp. McCabe can solidify one of the top-4 D slots for a few years to come.
The last rookie on this team might have the most impressive season so far. After the offseason acquisition of Robin Lehner, nobody was expecting Linus Ullmark to contribute in Buffalo this year. An injury to Lehner in game one changed that. The job was given to Chad Johnson after the injury, but his shakiness and Ullmark’s solid play has started to shift the matchup plays.
Ullmark has started just five games this year, but his play has raised the eyebrows of Sabres fans. He’s posted a .918 save percentage so far, more than 30 points higher than Johnson’s. His fluidity and shiftiness in net reminds me of another recent Sabres goalie: Ryan Miller. And Ullmark has that speed in a much bigger frame, sitting at 6’4”, 210 pounds. Until Lehner returns, it looks as if Ullmark will have his shot to secure the starting role.
Aside from true rookies, the youthful talent on the Sabres squad goes deep. Mark Pysyk and Rasmus Ristolainen are holding down D-man spots. Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Zemgus Girgensons, and Marcus Foligno are all 24 or younger. Justin Bailey, Nick Baptise, William Carrier and Evan Rodrigues are waiting in the wings in Rochester. This team is set to compete for an extended period.
This season’s rookie class just heightens expectations, and it’s coming from way more than Jack Eichel.