Jack Eichel

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Housley back in Buffalo, eager to put up-tempo stamp on Sabres

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) The Sabres’ new-look blue-line is already making a good impression on rookie coach Phil Housley even before Buffalo opens training camp.

“I thought I hit a long drive on the long-drive hole, and I was 10 yards behind Ryan O'Reilly,” Housley said Thursday, a day after the team’s annual golf tournament. “But I found out that Marco Scandella blew one past him. That was good to see a D-man hit a long drive.”

No offense to O’Reilly, a forward. Housley retains a soft spot for defensemen.

The Hall of Famer spent 21 NHL seasons playing the position in a career that began in Buffalo in 1982. And it was his work overseeing last season’s Stanley Cup finalist Nashville Predators’ play-making group of defenders that helped clinch Housley’s return to Buffalo after being hired in June.

“It just gives me chills,” Housley said, of wearing the familiar Sabres’ blue-and-gold logo a day before the team’s first practice.

“I’m really excited to get on the ice finally and do something meaningful,” he said. “We’re hopefully going to write a new chapter in the Buffalo Sabres organization.”

The Sabres are leaning on their past in a bid to usher in a more promising future for a franchise that has veered off course. Buffalo hasn’t made the playoffs in six years and hasn’t won a playoff round since reaching the 2007 Eastern Conference finals.

Replacing Dan Bylsma, who was fired after just two seasons, Housley becomes the Sabres’ fourth coach since Lindy Ruff was fired during the 2012-13 season. And Housley was hired by another ex-Sabres player, general manager Jason Botterill, who took over after Tim Murray was also fired in April.

While Botterill spent the offseason reshaping the roster through a series of trades, it’s now on Housley bring focus to a group that under-achieved last season.

Buffalo was within three points of a playoff spot entering its bye week in mid-February before spiraling out of contention by going 2-7-2 over its next nine games. Instead being a team on the rise, Buffalo went 33-37-12 in finishing with two fewer wins and three fewer points than the previous season.

“I understand that this team last year was close before the mid-break,” Housley said. “I just tend to try to move forward. Whatever happened last year, we’re coming in with a clean slate, a fresh start for these players.”

Spending the past four seasons working under Peter Laviolette in Nashville, Housley was credited for helping devise an up-tempo, attacking-style approach that relied on defensemen joining the rush. It’s a system that had the Predators finishing among the NHL’s top-two teams in goals by defensemen in each of Housley’s four seasons.

It helped that the Predators featured a talented core of blue-liners, including last year’s addition of P.K. Subban.

It’s no coincidence that Buffalo’s back-end is transformed under Housley with Scandella (acquired in a trade with Minnesota ) Nathan Beaulieu, (acquired in a trade with Montreal) and the free-agent signing of Victor Antipin, who previously played in Russia. They join a group that includes youngsters Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe, and veterans Zach Bogosian and Josh Gorges.

Buffalo also has speed at forward, starting with center Jack Eichel.

“The way that Phil wants to play is right up my alley,” Eichel said. “I’m excited for it, you know, D down the walls, D in the rush. That’s me. That all sounds good.”

The Sabres last year had difficulty clearing their own zone and sustaining pressure in the opponent’s end. Though Buffalo finished tied for fourth in scoring 57 power-play goals, the team ranked 28th with 126 goals in five-on-five situations.

Housley can only do so much to transform a team which Sabres owner Terry Pegula criticized for lacking discipline and structure.

The returning players also bear responsibility after many acknowledged there was a lack of accountability inside the locker room.

“We definitely need to mature as a team,” forward Kyle Okposo said. “We have a lot of young players, but they have the ability to play older, to play a more mature game. And I think that was something that was just lacking a little bit.”

 

Horvat believes he is ‘just scratching the surface’

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The Vancouver Canucks were finally able to sign restricted free agent Bo Horvat to a new contract on Friday, giving him a six-year, $33 million contract.

The team is obviously excited about what Horvat has accomplished and what he is capable of in the future with general manager Jim Benning calling him a “foundational player.”

Horvat, the team’s first-round pick in 2012, chosen with the pick that was acquired in the Cory Schneider trade with the New Jersey Devils, had his best year to date in 2016-17 by scoring 20 goals and recording 32 assists, leading the team in both goals and total points. It was the first time since the 2005-06 season that a player other than Henrik or Daniel Sedin finished as the team’s leading scorer (Markus Naslund was the leading scorer that year).

Just now entering his age 22 season, Horvat should be entering the portion of his career where he is capable of his best hockey, and that has to be an encouraging sign for the Canucks given what he has already shown. His production has improved steadily across the board every year that he has been in the league and this past season he took a big step toward being a reliable top-line scorer.

He believes that he is just now starting to scratch the surface.

Here he is talking about his new deal on Friday, via Sportsnet’s Iian MacIntyre:

“I did,” he said today. “(But) I think them signing me to a long-term deal means that they they have a lot of support for me and they believe in me. I’m really humbled by that and, obviously, I respect them for that.

“I think I’m just scratching the surface. I’ve only been in the league three years. These next six years is where I can really step up my game and prove myself.”

He was one of just 11 players age 21 or younger to score at least 20 goals and record at least 50 points this past season, joining a list that included Connor McDavid, Austin Matthews, Patrik Laine, Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak, Nikolaj Ehlers, Jack Eichel, William Nylander, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Drouin.

The bad news for the Canucks as a team is that are still looking at what will probably be another long season in 2017-18, especially as the Sedins get one year closer to retirement.

But Horvat, assuming he continues to develop as he has over his first three years in the league, is at least one player that should provide a little bit of hope for the future.

Islanders arena mess update: Bettman again shoots down Nassau talk

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The NHL held a Friday press conference to hype up the 2018 Winter Classic between the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers, but the most interesting comments had little to do with an outdoor game.

(Although Jack Eichel watching the first-ever Winter Classic at age 11 is enlightening, and for most of us, a punch in our aging guts.)

While contract talks regarding Eichel came up – he again stated that playing out his contract year is no big deal – the other intriguing subject was not related to the Rangers or Sabres. Newsday’s Steve Zipay and Jim Baumbach report that, once again, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said that he doesn’t think Nassau Coliseum would make sense for the New York Islanders, even as merely a temporary venue.

“Ultimately, whether or not the Islanders want to consider that and bring it to the league or something, you’ve had to ask them about it,” Bettman said. “But my gut reaction is it’s not a viable option.”

Before we try to dig through some of the dizzying aspects of the Islanders’ current situation, note that Bettman said that this is his gut reaction. He didn’t mark the situation downright as impossible altogether. Perhaps there would be room for convincing, though it sounds like it would be an uphill battle.

Even with that slightly optimistic aside in mind, it’s worth noting that it takes a lot of wind out of sails for Bettman to seem disinterested in the idea of merely having a few games at Nassau, as Baumbach also highlights. Such a thought makes Bettman’s latest comments that much more troubling than what he said back in April.

It’s no secret that the Islanders’ shaky arena situation is making a contract extension more difficult to work out with John Tavares. How many star players want to be a part of a team that resembles a struggling college student bouncing among friends’ couches?

As with many ownership and arena situations, things can be tricky. Getting a few positive breaks doesn’t necessarily guarantee that all will work out, especially with the scary timeline of Tavares only having one season remaining on his current contract.

Some dates to remember

It wasn’t all about killing hope for the Islanders fans back in April, as Bettman gave a tentative thumbs up to two possibilities: an arena on land near Belmont Park or one next to Citi Field, home of the New York Mets.

The array of possible deadlines and hiccups can be confusing, but a few dates stand out as of today.

For one thing, a Belmont proposal would need to happen soon, as Sept. 28 could be an informative date in the process.

Zipay and Baumbach’s Newsday report notes that the state doesn’t have a timeline for a decision, and a Jan. 30 date that might sound far-off today could come frighteningly soon for the Islanders:

If either the Islanders or Barclays Center want to opt out of their 25-year license agreement, they are contractually obligated to do so by Jan. 30. That means that the Islanders may not know their longterm future when that deadline arrives.

In an ideal scenario where the Islanders get an arena plan in full motion, they’d likely still need to spend a significant chunk of time playing somewhere else as that arena is built. More realistic situations could call for increased certainty well into 2018.

With that in mind, two other key dates could be the 2017-18 trade deadline (usually late February/early March) and the summer of 2018, when Tavares’ current contract expires.

If they don’t know where they’re playing by the trade deadline, would that prompt them to avoid losing Tavares for nothing? Would they be able to move enough in the right direction to buy time in one way or another?

***

The Islanders’ arena situation is becoming winding and frustrating enough to feel in some ways like the Coyotes’ seemingly eternal issues. The added wrinkle for the Islanders is the threat of it scaring away Tavares.

This story is by no means over, but Bettman’s comments once again make it seem like the big events won’t take place on Long Island.

Check out that Newsday story for more details on this confusing and rather nerve-wracking situation.

Jack Eichel confirms he has ‘no problem playing the year out’

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On Monday, PHT passed along word from TSN’s Darren Dreger that Jack Eichel wouldn’t lose any sleep over entering the 2017-18 season without a contract extension from the Buffalo Sabres.

A day later, Eichel confirmed as much to reporters including the Buffalo News’ John Vogl.

“I have no problem playing the year out,” Eichel told reporters Tuesday in Buffalo. “If that happens, it happens. Obviously, I’m pretty adamant on staying a Sabre and staying in Buffalo, but it’s not something I can really control here. I can just control my play.”

Buffalo station WGR 550 provided full audio:

Vogl notes that Eichel’s agent believes that negotiations have slowed, but that there wouldn’t be an issue if the Sabres wanted to reconvene during the season itself.

As mentioned yesterday, it’s my opinion that the Sabres would probably be better off locking up Eichel sooner rather than later. The young forward would likely prefer to get that settled from the sheer standpoints of a) not answering questions about his contract all season and b) securing the peace of mind that comes with what would likely be a long-term deal in a violent sport where injuries can change the narrative in a heartbeat.

Injuries are also an argument for the Sabres putting this situation to rest.

Eichel was almost a point-per-game player in 2016-17, yet he missed more than 20 games, limiting his counting stats. He also has been shooting at around 10 percent for his career, so Eichel could theoretically light it up with the right puck and injury luck.

(This post goes into more detail about how Eichel could easily enjoy a big year if just a few things go right.)

Considering how much he can conceivably manage if his contract year goes swimmingly, it makes sense that Eichel wouldn’t panic about this situation. The Sabres are instead the ones who are most likely to benefit from getting this done as soon as possible.

Report: No extension, no problem for Jack Eichel

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It’s reasonable to assume that this has been a pretty good summer for Jack Eichel, at least in an indirect way.

Just look at the big, eight-year deals the Edmonton Oilers handed out. Whether it be Connor McDavid getting $12.5 million per year or Leon Draisaitl receiving $8.5M in AAV, each contract seems like it would be a small victory for Eichel’s camp.

FanRag’s Chris Nichols transcribed interviews Buffalo’s WGR 550 conducted with Darren Dreger and Alex Tanguay, providing some interesting perspectives on Eichel possibly entering the 2017-18 season without a contract extension locked down.

The most important takeaway likely comes from Dreger, who reports that Eichel would be OK with the idea of a contract year.

“My sense a week or even two weeks ago was that they were still very hopeful that they would get a settlement done here, they would reach an agreement prior to the start of the season,” Dreger said on WGR 550, via Nichols. “There’s still that possibility, but I’m now getting the sense that – certainly from the player’s perspective – he’s okay starting the season without this contract extension in place.”

Tanguay believes that the Sabres might be the greater beneficiary of Eichel playing out the year, but considering Eichel’s importance to Buffalo, it’s tough to imagine the second pick of the 2015 NHL Draft coming at a major discount.

The best is yet to come

Eichel enjoyed a strong rookie season, scoring 24 goals and 56 points in 81 games in 2015-16. Despite missing 20 games this past season, Eichel once again scored 24 goals and finished with 57 points, firing 249 shots on goal during that time.

Scoring 57 points in 61 games would translate to 76 points in an 82-game season. While you could argue that maybe fatigue would slow Eichel a bit in that scenario, it’s interesting to note that Eichel would have generated virtually the same results as Draisaitl did in 2016-17 (the Oilers forward had 77 points).

Beyond even those injury woes, Eichel hasn’t enjoyed a ton of puck luck yet in his career. Draisaitl, for example, scored 29 goals with a 16.9 shooting percentage. Eichel only connected on 10.1 and 9.6 percent of his high volume of shots in his first two seasons.

It’s plausible that the Sabres could make a big push toward competence as a team next season, and Eichel could see a big jump. Draisaitl himself went from 51 to 77 points, enormously improving his perceived value in the process.

(Eichel, for one, believes that Buffalo could make the playoffs.)

At 20, Eichel is easily in the range where a talented player could make a huge leap, especially if there’s the extra motivation of a contract year involved (whether he went through the full thing or the Sabres eventually decided to pony up).

Risk-reward

If healthy, Eichel seems likely to eclipse 30 goals and 70 points. What if he enjoys a hot streak, though? He boasts the opportunities and skills to reach as high as 40 goals and 80 points, possibly costing the Sabres extra millions in their gamble.

MORE: What might his contract look like?

And that, really, is the question: how much would the Sabres really stand to save in waiting? Eichel has reason to sign if there’s a fair deal, too, as an extension provides peace of mind in a violent sport where injury luck can be fickle.

In many cases, teams send a clear signal that their core guys are a priority, locking them up to extensions just about as early as possible.

Eichel is an integral talent for the Sabres, so they might as well treat him as such. It might just save them a few bucks in the process.