When the offseason began, the notion that Jack Eichel would begin the 2021-22 NHL season on any team outside of Buffalo seemed to be the lock of the century. Eichel all but announced that he wanted out, while the Sabres, at least publicly, presented that feeling as mutual.
Inexplicably, as NHL teams began training camp this week, Eichel and the Sabres find themselves still stuck in an unhappy marriage. Despite months of offseason talks and an agent change, a resolution to the situation feels more in the distance than ever before. The Sabres haven't made the playoffs since Eichel was drafted second overall in the 2015 NHL Draft and far away from contention. Exasperated with the direction of the franchise, Eichel aired out his frustration with the franchise in his exit interview last season.
The Sabres' reportedly astronomical asking price was not met in the summer, and it's hard to see why teams would up the ante now that his impending surgery (of some kind) will force him to miss significant stretches of the regular season.
The only real change from the start of the saga is the Sabres' announcement on Thursday that Eichel had been stripped of the captaincy; an understandable decision in the context of the situation, but it is a nonetheless new humiliating low for an organization at war with its foundational player after a decade of incompetence.
Eventually, this will end. Despite all of the drama and injury uncertainty, teams won't be able to shrug off the possibility of adding a franchise-altering center. It's a reputation Eichel has earned through his elite offensive abilities. He has 178 points in 166 games over the last three seasons despite being surrounded by a dearth of talent. Eichel has incredibly slick hands, is a magician with the puck on his stick, particularly in small areas of the ice and he can beat goaltenders with a quick release and find teammates in scoring positions through small seams. On his ability to create goals alone, Eichel is a major difference-maker.
Where Eichel receives fewer compliments is his play away from the puck. In reality, the American is a far more complete player than he often gets credit for. Yes, the offensive output is the main driver of his value, but he can impact the game in a multitude of ways that go beyond what's displayed on the scoresheet.
Per Evolving Hockey, Jack Eichel's defensive impact ranks in the 80th percentile for NHL skaters over the last three seasons. Along the same lines, Hockey Viz estimates Eichel is worth eight percent fewer goals per 60 minutes at even strength than league average.
What drives Eichel's success defensively? For one, he plays with a deceptively strong motor. He doesn't chaotically fly around with his heart on his sleeve, but he rarely coasts during his shifts and is always looking to become involved in the play. He inhabits all areas of the ice and constantly moves in response to the puck in order to support the play.
One area in which Eichel is underrated is on the backcheck. He's a fairly good straight-line skater and has the acumen to anticipate plays and where danger might present itself.
He's also surprisingly successful in fights for possession. When one thinks of puck battles, particularly around the perimeter, physical power forwards like Dustin Brown and Brady Tkachuk might be the quickest associations. Eichel does not play anything resembling that style and rarely throws hits, yet he is often a menace in these types of situations using the same gift that drives so much of his offensive brilliance: his hands.
At 6'2" and 213 pounds, Eichel is big enough to stand his ground. From there, he relies on quick mitts and phenomenal hand-eye coordination to win the puck in tight spaces. He'll dig pucks out of awkward spots or even make a perfectly timed stick lift to win possession, then use his poise and stick-handling ability to rescue the puck out of danger and into more open ice. Maybe he's not slamming players into the glass, but the 24-year-old doesn't tip-toe around puck battles, either, and uses his finesse abilities to out-duel brawn.
This translates to similar types of plays in the offensive zone, where his team is the aggressor. He'll win those 50-50 battles to keep the play alive for his team. That is helpful offensively in that it recycles possession for his team and maintains pressure. There are some great players, such as Patrik Laine and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who can do special things with the puck in the offensive zone but won't make an impact in the offensive zone otherwise.
In Eichel's case, he can make a difference elsewhere by doing the dirty work to tilt the ice in his team's direction. More to the point, the best defense is not having to defend. The opposing team can't score if the puck stays in their own end, and Eichel is extremely capable of ensuring that happens.
Is there a Selke Trophy in Eichel's future? Probably not. He'll never reach the level of a Patrice Bergeron in terms of defensive prowess. But he's also hardly a slouch in that regard despite his reputation as primarily, if not solely, an offensive contributor. It's typical for centers in their first few NHL seasons to struggle on the defensive side. The best ones take their high-end processing abilities and physical skills that allow them to excel offensively and learn how to utilize them in the other direction.
Eichel has shown tremendous growth over the last six seasons in that regard and, still just 24 years old, will only become better. Maybe he's not a team's top penalty-killer, but he can be relied on to match up against the other team's top players and hold the line.
An NHL team will eventually pony up and part with a significant package of future picks and/or players to acquire Eichel. The justification for doing so is apparent. He may have made a name for himself for the magic he can create offensively, but Eichel's stature as an elite NHL center is borne in his underappreciated all-around game.