When Evander Kane was dealt last February, the door was opened for Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel to return to his roots and switch from No. 15 to No. 9.
“For a long time, the number nine has always been a part of my identity as both a person and as a player,” the now Sabres captain said in a July statement. “The opportunity opened up to switch and I felt it was the right time to make the change as I begin the next phase of my career as a Sabre.”
Eichel wore No. 9 during his one year at Boston University and when he represented the U.S. as a youth international. The legendary Maurice “Rocket” Richard also played a role in why he chose the number.
“He played a lot a long time before me, but my dad was a big fan and my uncle, who was a diehard Canadians fan,” Eichel told NBC during the NHL Players Media Tour last month. “I wore 9 as a kid. That’s the 9 I think about when I think about the number 9. So I just think it’s a really good forward number, fast skater, skill guy, shoots the puck, makes a lot of plays, I think it’s just a great hockey number.”
Eichel and the Sabres are off to a good start in 2018-19, taking 10 out of a possible 18 points through nine games. The captain leads the team in scoring with three goals and nine points. He’s enjoyed his time recently centering Jeff Skinner, who was acquired over the summer as part of general manager Jason Botterill’s continued roster reshaping.
We spoke with Eichel about the changes in Buffalo, Rasmus Dahlin and USA Hockey.
Q. What will it take for the Sabres to make the playoffs this year?
EICHEL: “I think more than anything just consistency. You gotta bring it every night, so it’s that consistency, it’s that coming together as a group, trusting each other, believing in what we’re doing, and I think we can accomplish that.”
Q. Has the culture changed over the last little while?
EICHEL: “It has. I think it’s changed more so from the end of last season to now. I think whenever you have little success as we did last year, you’re gonna have to step back and look at what you’ve been doing, probably change some things with the team itself and the culture, and change some things. [They] have done a good job of bringing some new guys in that will kinda get rid of that sour taste that we had the last few years, that haven’t been there before. They are excited with that. You bring in the first overall pick, excitement around the team, and I think just starting a new culture, it should be a winning culture; culture where nothing else is accepted other than the best, and it’s something that doesn’t just happen. It’s accomplished over time.”
Q. What strikes you about Rasmus Dahlin, his maturity?
EICHEL: “I think a lot of things. I think his game speaks for itself. We all know how good a player he is, he’s a very polite, no ego to him, he’s a really nice kid. I enjoy being around him and we’re very lucky to have him.”
Q. You’ve been through a similar situation as a top of the draft guy. Did you talk to him about it? The expectations?
EICHEL: “Not so much expectations. I’ve spoken to him a bit, but more so how to handle yourself, what to expect. It’s a bit of a change for him. He’s never lived in the United States before, so he’s going through a lot of new things, and on top of that he’s being asked to play in the NHL, as an 18-year-old defenseman. It’s not easy, but I think the easiest thing for him will be the hockey, everything else will take a little bit of time, but I know he’ll do a great job.”
Q. What has the USA Hockey National Team Development Program meant for hockey in this country?
EICHEL: “I think it’s been probably one of the most important pieces in the United States’ success the last few years in terms of internationally and producing good players. I think the entity would be an amazing program, and [I’m] so fortunate that I was able to go there. If you go there with the right mindset it’s just amazing what they can do for you. You look at some of the players that come through there and it speaks for itself. And it’s not easy by any means, it’s definitely a pretty tough thing to go through. There’s a lot of adversity as a young 16-year-old to go there and go through the things you go through, and I think majority of the people by the end of it would say it was a great experience. To get so close to your teammates, you learn so much about growing up and you’re really prepared well for the NHL and, ahead after that, business or hockey life. Wherever you’re going, it teaches you a lot of life lessons.”
MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.