Last year’s Sabres’ blue line featured Rasmus Ristolainen leading a pack of average-at-best defensemen. The crease was guarded by an unproven No. 1, a rookie, and a 29-year-old forced into his first starting role. Behind this defense, the Sabres managed a tie for 15th in the league in goals against. The Sabres meager tie for 26th in scoring league-wide was the factor that kept them out of the playoffs.
Now, it’s up to Jack Eichel and the rest of the offense to come through to help this team make the postseason for the first time since 2011. The team will go only as far as Eichel can take them. Buffalo’s continuing ascent from the bottom rests on the shoulders and amplified production of the budding superstar.
The Crystal Ball
Fans can extrapolate from historical trends to build reasonable expectations. Of the last 25 seasons, the top talent in the league has generally improved on scoring from freshman year to sophomore year by an average of 19 percent, although the data points are widely scattered. Eichel produced 24 goals, 32 assists for 56 points in his rookie campaign. Using league averages, this projects to 29 goals, 38 assists and 67 points for the upcoming season.
There are three reasons to expect even more from Eichel. First, he is no ordinary top draft pick. Players selected in the top spots have a record of higher-than-average improvement in year two. Second, the roster of talented wingers has improved, not only in personnel but experience. And third, Eichel will likely be paired with 2015 standout Sam Reinhart. Last season, Eichel and Reinhart were road roommates creating a friendship and a familiarity that bred on-ice chemistry. The pair led the team in the second half of the season. The dynamic duo so enjoys each others’ company that they are now sharing a home in Buffalo.
Asked about a 35 goal season on NHL Radio just last week, Eichel responded with a laugh, “Anything can happen, but those sound like good numbers.”
The Sophomore Slump
Cynical Sabre fans who are still bitter from multiple last-place finishes need not worry about the dreaded sophomore slump. It’s really a myth that statistics do not bear out, at least for forwards. Of all top draft picks and top talent over the last twenty five years, there are really only four instances that stand out:
- Colorado Avalanche’s first round pick in 2013, Nathan MacKinnon, dropped from 63 to 38 points from his first year to his second, only to rebound to 52 for his third season.
- Carolina Hurricanes‘ enigma Jeff Skinner had his highest point total as a rookie in 2010, only to trail off significantly.
- Jordan Staal, drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2006, went 42-28-49 for point totals in his first three seasons.
- Alex Ovechkin had a drop off of 14 points in his second season, although no one was complaining with his 46 goal, 92 point sophomore 2005 season.
Eichel is demonstrating skill and maturity in the World Hockey Championships, starring for Team North America. He’s been playing a strong 200-foot game while matched mostly with Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames. Playing with world class talent will help Eichel hit the ground running as the NHL season starts in early October.
In a 2015 pre-draft meeting between Eichel and the Sabres’ entire front office, it was suggested that even though the Sabres were to draft second, maybe they actually won the lottery. Jack was quick to confirm, “I think you did.” It’s time to combine that confidence with even better play to lead the Sabres to the playoffs.