Eichel sees the potential in this year's Sabres group

September 13, 2018

It's back to work for Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres as the players reported to training camp on Thursday for physicals and other tests to prepare for the 2018-19 season.

The 21-year-old is set to begin his fourth season with the Sabres, and his first season under his new eight-year, $80 million contract.

Last season could not have gone worse for the Sabres, finishing with a 25-45-12 record and just 62 points in the standings, which put the Sabres in last place in the NHL standings. With that, the Sabres went into overhaul mode, moving on from 10 players from last year's roster while bringing in nine new players into the fold.

For Eichel, he knew that these moves needed to be made if the team was to try and get out of the bottom of the NHL standings.

"It was sort of inevitable with the way things went last year. We knew changes were going to be made," Eichel said at his meeting with the media on Thursday. "There's a lot of negative and a lot of bad, and I think we've put that behind us at this point. Last year was last year. I think the guys in the room now are excited with the opportunity that we have."

Among the players to be moved out of town or let go by the team included forwards Ryan O'Reilly and Benoit Pouliot, defensemen Victor Antipin, Josh Gorges and Justin Falk, and goalies Chad Johnson and Robin Lehner. However, general manager Jason Botterill made the necessary moves to bring in some valuable assets such as Patrik Berglund, Conor Sheary, Jeff Skinner, and Tage Thompson, while also winning the NHL Draft Lottery and selecting defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the first overall pick in June.

With the new group of players in Buffalo to start the 2018-19 season, Eichel is approaching this year with an optimistic view of things.

"I think we see our potential as a group, and there's plenty of steps that we have to take for it to come to [fruition]," Eichel said. "This is step one. Just getting through, having a good camp, coming together as a group and just being excited to be back and playing hockey."

Last season, the Sabres got off to a terrible start after a promising opening night game against the Montreal Canadiens at KeyBank Center. After losing in a shootout, Buffalo went on to go 3-7-1 to close out the month of October. Things didn't improve in November as Buffalo went on to lose 10 of their 13 games that month. With that poor start, it pretty much put the Sabres out of playoff contention before the team even got to Christmas.

Eichel knows that it is imperative for the Sabres to get off to a good start this season if they want to contend for a playoff spot, and it all starts with training camp.

"First you want to create something at camp, create a culture, create a new identity as a group," Eichel said. "I think last year, we've put that behind us at this point. There's a lot of new people in here, I think there's a new mindset and a new standard. I think you will see a different group of guys with the way we conduct ourselves and the way we handle ourselves.

"I think our first goal is to have a good camp and take it from there," Eichel said. "Like anything, you start with Day 1 and you take care of everything along the way. It's a process, it's not gonna happen overnight, but we're excited. We think we have a lot of good players, we think we're trending in the right direction. There's a lot of parity in the NHL and I think there's a lot to be optimistic about. It's an exciting time. I know I'm excited, I know there's a lot of guys in the room that are excited, so just getting back and getting to play hockey again is a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to it."

Over the past several years, it seems as though the Sabres have been a mess when it comes to the chemistry of the players with the coaching staff and management group. Last year was an evaluation year for Botterill and head coach Phil Housley in their first year with the organization. However, in Year 2, Eichel says that the relationship between the players and the coaching staff and management is stronger than it has ever been.

"I think that [Botterill's] done a lot of communicating with us in terms of seeing our side of things and trying to figure out what management can do, coaches can do to make our relationships mend better and they've done a wonderful job," Eichel said. "I feel more confident now that I have ever been. There's that open line of communication, and if you have something that's bothering you, you can get it off your chest. If you think that we need to change something in the room, whatever it may be. Phil's been great for the last few weeks with us and having our input, seeing what we think.

I think it's a bit of a change for us and it's a good one. I think that's how it needs to be. You look at the teams that are successful year after year - it's that open line, it's that player-coach one relationship instead of battling with them and it's been a good start so far. I just want to continue it. Obviously you're not going to agree with everything, but I think we're taking a lot of right steps."

Eichel is also looking forward to getting the chance to work with the group of young players that will be coming into the organization this year. Dahlin is, obviously, the leader of that young group to go along with others like Casey Mittelstadt, Rasmus Asplund, Victor Olofsson and others.

Being in a similar position to Dahlin just a few years prior, Eichel knows what Dahlin will mean for the city of Buffalo and for the fans that are hoping for the next young superstar in the National Hockey League.

"Obviously we picked up a franchise defenseman and a really good kid, a really good player. We're super lucky to have him," Eichel said. "I think it was a huge point of this organization's offseason with [winning] the draft lottery, being able to select a player of his caliber and adding him to our group is something that the city, as fans, needed a bit to bring that excitement back again. I think it's great.

"We had a bit of a let down last year and our fans have stuck by us for a while. It's good that they're excited - well, it seems like they're excited again for another season, I know I am, and hopefully it's a good one."

The Sabres will take to the ice for practice starting Friday morning, with the first session of practice starting at 9:45 a.m. at HarborCenter.

09-13 Jack Eichel