Sabres get early look at Jack Eichel's impact

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- It was about 20 minutes after his first NHL game and Jack Eichel made a beeline for a 6-year-old kid in a wheelchair. No one asked him to. But the 18-year-old Buffalo Sabres phenom recognized the young cancer patient from a hospital visit earlier in the summer. The two spoke for a few minutes before Eichel was whisked away for his postgame news conference.

That's the first thing you should know about this young man.

He had just scored his first NHL goal in his first NHL game. But the look on Eichel's face as he kibitzed with the child underlined a maturity well beyond his years.

"As confident and as good as he is, he's a very humble person," Sabres teammate and current landlord Matt Moulson said earlier Thursday. "That's something that's stuck out to me as I've gotten to know him. He's very humble and respectful."

Eichel looked human for 40 minutes Thursday night in his NHL debut against the Ottawa Senators, as he was limited to one shot on goal -- albeit a backhand chance that drew a second-period penalty.

"You didn't see him skate in the first two periods, you didn't see him use his speed. But again, that was a lot like our entire team, not in particular to Jack," Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma said. "But the third period, a lot different. Speed and big bodies, he won pucks with his speed and size and reach. That line in particular really led the charge."

Then it happened. That moment 19,070 fans at First Niagara Center had come to see: Eichel taking a sweet cross-crease pass from Marcus Foligno and, after a moment to pick his spot, roofing it under the crossbar past Craig Anderson.

A moment in time, Jack Eichel's first NHL goal at 9 minutes, 11 seconds of the third period on a Sabres power play, an absolute gem.

"It's a pretty special moment for me," Eichel allowed himself afterward. "I'll remember that for the rest of my life. Today is my dad's birthday, I have a lot of family in town, so it's a special moment to be able to score the first one today. A win definitely would have capped it off perfectly but you can't have it all, and it's a long season."

A few shifts later, there was Eichel poking the puck past Erik Karlsson and dancing around the reigning Norris Trophy winner for another scoring chance. Ho-hum, just what any 18-year-old would try in his first NHL game, right?

It showed why Eichel was the second overall pick in June's draft, a generational talent expected to carry the Sabres to lofty heights over the years to come.

"Obviously there were a little bit of nerves in the beginning, first game," Eichel said. "It's something you dreamed of your whole life. But I think as I shook them off throughout the game, I started to get a little better. And I think I played pretty well in the third period. But obviously there's a lot of things I'd like to work on. As a team there's a lot of things to work on to get better."

The 3-1 loss to the Senators reminded everyone on hand that the Sabres' hopes of reaching juggernaut status won't happen in a hurry. Baby steps. The offense will be much better this season with Eichel joining the likes of Evander Kane, Tyler Ennis, Moulson and Sam Reinhart up front.

But a mediocre blue-line corps will make it hard on many nights for the puck even to be on Eichel's stick.

And so it's a work in progress, to be sure, but the buzz Eichel provided with his first career goal makes the waiting well worth it for long-suffering Sabres fans.

"They're a good team, a young team that's trying to find their way," Senators superstar captain Karlsson said Thursday night. "They've got a lot of upside. They don't have the most experience but they will be a good team going forward. There's no easy games in this league."

In the hallway after the game, Bryan Murray made a point of telling Bylsma what he thought, too.

"Your team is going to be good, Dan," the Senators general manager told the Sabres coach as their paths crossed.

Bylsma smiled back.

"No, I'm serious," Murray said.

He was. And he's right.

But as this Sabres team grows, the spotlight will mostly be on Eichel -- fair or not -- and he's already grown used to it.

"I think he's well aware that yesterday at our team luncheon the autograph line was twice as long for him as it was for anybody else combined," observed Bylsma after the morning skate.

And the comparisons to Connor McDavid (the No. 1 pick was held pointless Thursday night in his debut for the Edmonton Oilers) will continue day in and day out.

"There's a lot of guys playing in the NHL tonight, he's another one of them and I'm another one of them," Eichel said Thursday morning after the skate, for the millionth time answering a McDavid comparison question.

Still, he knows the deal. I asked Eichel if he, like the rest of us, enjoyed the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin rookie show back in 2005-06?

"I remember watching Crosby and Ovechkin coming into the league," said Eichel, who turned 9 years old less than a month into Crosby and Ovechkin's first NHL season. "It was kind of like, Sidney Crosby, it was his show and then this Russian guy named Ovechkin comes in and who's this guy? He scored over 50 goals in a rookie year. Yeah I remember watching those two, it was an exciting year for the NHL."

Then, in mid-thought, and perhaps realizing that the Crosby-Ovechkin comparison was meant to justify the Eichel-McDavid hype this season, the young man downplayed it now that he's a lead actor in it.

"But in the position of playing in the league, you don't look at it as much like that, as much as I haven't already," Eichel said. "I don't look at it as a head-to-head matchup between me and Connor in any way. My biggest thing right now is just trying to help the Buffalo Sabres win hockey games and I think that's just what I'm going to try to do."

Good answer. There will be no currency for Eichel in ever indulging anybody in the McDavid angle.

No, the focus, as it should be, is on his rookie season with the Sabres, which includes living at Moulson's house.

"He's a great kid," said Moulson, a 31-year-old with eight NHL seasons under his belt. "He meshed well with our family right off the bat. The kids loved him. My wife takes care of three of us already so one other person is no big deal."

Plus, Moulson added, Eichel chips in, cooking steaks for everyone Wednesday night.

"He's made me feel so comfortable," Eichel said of Moulson. "He's done so much for me, him and his family. I wouldn't say you worry about a lot of things but things stress you out a little bit more when you're young and kind of inexperienced. I think living with Matt and having his wife there, they do a lot for me, it keeps my stress level pretty low."

Stressed? Eichel seemed destined for Thursday's NHL debut the minute he first put skates on.

Of course, when he was 8 or 9 years old, his NHL dreams were different.

"I was probably dreaming one day of playing on Crosby's wing, and another day playing for the Bruins, another day playing in the Cup," Eichel said, smiling. "You know, just like any other kid, I think it changed all the time."

Two dreams came true Thursday night: first game, first goal.

And there's plenty of time for more wishes to come true.

"Another game on Saturday, looking forward to it," smiled Eichel.