College is over, but Jack Eichel still getting schooled

Jack Eichel said that he and the team have a lot of work to do to get where they need to be. Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Jack Eichel hasn't been grounded -- yet.

Not only is the Buffalo Sabres' 19-year-old rookie living with a billet family during his first NHL season, it also happens to be teammate and veteran Matt Moulson who is providing Eichel with room and board.

When asked if he has had to discipline his teenage houseguest, Moulson said with a laugh, "No. Not yet."

It's commonplace in the NHL for veteran players to welcome young teammates as roommates. To this day, Boston Bruins assistant captain Patrice Bergeron, 30, is thankful for the opportunity he had as an 18-year-old rookie to live with then-teammate Martin Lapointe.

Transitioning from college or junior hockey to the NHL is challenging, so Moulson and the Sabres are making sure Eichel is comfortable.

"He's been taking care of me since the day I moved in with him," Eichel said. "Everything I've needed, he's been there for me."

Not that Eichel, the No. 2 overall pick in last June's draft, needs an allowance, but there are probably some babysitting and chauffeur duties involved in his housemate agreement with Moulson.

"I usually make him drive most of the time," Moulson said with a smile. "Actually, half the time we take separate cars because he runs so many errands. He's always running around doing something. We even eat at different places on game day. I like a home-cooked meal and he likes to go out.

"He's awesome. He's a great kid and my family loves him. It's been a lot of fun to have him. He's got some lingo that I don't know sometimes, but he keeps me up to date with all the recent trends. He's funny. It's fun to have him around and he's always smiling. He's a good person to have in the house."

On the ice, the former Boston University standout has nine goals and five assists for 14 points in 32 games this season.

"He's doing well. He's only going to get better," Moulson said. "The more he understands what he can do in this league, and his skill level, his skating is a level above a lot of people in this league, so he's only going to get better. He works hard and works on his game."

In a recent 2-1 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings at First Niagara Center, Eichel made a nifty backhand saucer pass to teammate Jake McCabe that resulted in a goal during the second period. Unfortunately for the Sabres, Kings coach Darryl Sutter challenged that the play was offside and the goal was overturned. Still, Eichel showed patience with the puck and had the hockey sense to make the right play.

"Early on this season, he was very good and had no problems," one NHL scout said. "He is so young and there are going to be some ups and downs for him, and now maybe he's hitting a bump in the road, but he will get through it. He's going to be great. It's not easy to come from the college schedule and dominate playing against men with a lot of expectations. Guys going against him know that."

Defensively, he has been better too, but Eichel understands there is still a lot to learn.

"Personally, it's been OK," he said of his first NHL games. "I'm not where I want to be yet, and our team is not where we want to be. I've got to be a lot better. There's a lot more I need to work on and get better at. I don't want to blame it on the fact that I'm adjusting to life and the pace and everything like that because I think I've adjusted pretty well. I need to be more consistent and play my best every time I touch the ice."

When a young player possesses a keen scoring touch, sometimes he becomes a little hesitant to shoot the puck as a rookie, and that's an area Eichel would like to improve.

"I've had a lot of opportunities to shoot and score, and I haven't been bearing down on my chances," he said. "I need to get more engaged."

Does he miss his college days? Sure. It's natural for any would-be sophomore to miss his friends, teammates and lifestyle. But he has no regrets turning pro.

"I miss the guys," he said. "They're my good friends. I'm so happy here in Buffalo and playing for the Sabres, so I wouldn't say I regret my decision at all. I'm more than happy where I am, but I miss those guys and college and that's pretty normal."

Eichel routinely speaks with his former coach at BU, David Quinn, and those conversations normally are focused on how the Terriers are playing this season.

Sabres coach Dan Bylsma has given Eichel every opportunity to succeed in every situation this season. From Day 1 of training camp until mid-December, Bylsma has seen quick improvements to the rookie's game.

"Strides for Jack have been -- other than his big long ones that make him one of the fastest skaters in the league -- have been defensively," said Bylsma, who added not to look too closely at Eichel's minus-7.

"Defensively, he's a way better hockey player than he was when he started the year," Bylsma said. "He's tracking down pucks, and he did that again [against the Pittsburgh Penguins] and drew a penalty because of it. In the defensive zone, he's way more attentive in the last two months and been real attentive in trying to get better in that area."

He has played well in a prominent role for the Sabres. He's doing things that you don't necessarily see younger players do on the ice. He is calm beyond his years and he's showing signs of becoming a great player in the NHL.

"He is going to be a star for a long time," one NHL scout said. "When he has a couple tough games, people will jump on that, but he is ridiculously good."