Jack Eichel’s off to huge start for Sabres

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With his $10 million AAV kicking in this season, Jack Eichel is certainly being paid fairly for his efforts. He might not always be getting the sort of credit he deserves, at least in certain, more cynical circles.

Perhaps this is the year he really cements his place as one of the NHL’s elite, and carries the Buffalo Sabres along with him?

Even Eichel’s naysayers must admit that he’s off to an impressive start. The 22-year-old already generated 17 points in 15 games, tying him for the 14th-best total in the NHL.

For some, the question is “Can he keep this up?” Really, though, it should be “Can he stay healthy?”

Through three turbulent seasons in the NHL, Eichel’s scored 24 goals twice and 25 once, never falling below 56 points. That’s a greater achievement when you consider that a) he was limited to 67 games in 2017-18 and 61 in 2016-17, and b) Eichel’s been on some lousy teams. (One can only imagine what Eichel might have muttered during hypothetical Uber rides during the past few seasons’ lowest moments.)

So, it’s fair to point out that Eichel’s basically been good-to-great since day one, but it’s also possible that he’s reaching yet another level this season. Enjoy this deeper dive into his fantastic, hype-affirming start.

[PHT Q&A with Eichel]

Questions of luck

Puck luck is an interesting element of Eichel’s start, as there are reasons why things might get even better, but also areas where regression seems all but certain.

For one thing, Eichel’s own shots will probably hit the net more frequently going forward. The center has already generated a robust 59 shots on goal, good for 3.93 SOG per game. Despite being so trigger-happy, Eichel’s only scored four goals, good for just a 6.8 shooting percentage. Maybe some of that volume comes from quantity over quality, but Eichel should get more bounces, as his career shooting percentage is 9.7.

Via Hockey Reference, you can see that his on-ice shooting percentage, meanwhile, is higher than usual. He’s at 11.5 percent, versus a career average of 8.6.

It seems like Eichel’s most common linemates are generally swiping his puck luck. Jeff Skinner (another volume shooter) has been electric, connecting on 18 percent of his SOG as he’s collected nine goals and 16 points in 15 games. Eichel and Skinner seem to turn back time for Jason Pominville, as he’s playing well enough to make Daniel Alfredsson forget who he is again, scoring on 19.5 percent of his SOG for eight goals and 14 points. Even Conor Sheary‘s season shooting percentage is 16.7 percentage.

So, expect Eichel’s goals to climb, while his assists should fall.

That said, Skinner – Eichel could very well remain a deadly combination, to the point that Buffalo might want to dangle an extension to their dimpled new winger.

All-around improvement

There’s only so much you can do about luck. The good news is that Eichel is “making his own luck” with stronger all-around play.

Coaches and color commentators likely put too much weight on faceoffs at times, but it’s still promising to see Eichel go from fairly putrid in that area (41.3-percent career average) to close to even so far in 2018-19, as he’s won 49.2-percent of his draws. The more well-rounded Eichel’s game, the less likely Phil Housley will decide not to roll him out in important situations.

Eichel’s vastly improved his puck possession game, going from a negative player in that regard – however much that falls on him – to one who’s positive by just about every metric, as you can see at Natural Stat Trick.

Now, it’s plausible that Skinner has as much to do with that area of improvement as Eichel’s own work, being that Skinner’s been a consistently dominant puck hog during his career. Then again, maybe this is a sign of what Eichel can accomplish when he’s getting more help?

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As of this writing, the Sabres currently hold a slim lead on the last East wild-card spot at 16 points in 15 games (7-6-2).

More than even a healthy season in the point-per-game range, making the playoffs would raise Eichel’s profile and standing in the eyes of the hockey world. To do so, Eichel and the Sabres will surely have to roll with punches that used to easily knock them out.

Time will tell if Eichel can pull all of that off, but so far, he’s been extremely impressive.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.