Struggling Sabres won’t have Eichel for at least two games

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A lot has gone right for the Buffalo Sabres so far this season, which is not something you’d say about this franchise since … the Chris Drury days, maybe?

Things can fall apart alarmingly quickly in the modern NHL, however, and the Sabres face some challenges as 2018 turned to 2019.

Consider that, after their stunning 10-game winning streak, the Sabres enjoyed a 17-6-2 record, even briefly earning a spot atop the entire NHL. While the Sabres are engaged in a tug-of-war with the Bruins for the Atlantic’s third spot, they’ve come down to Earth, having only won four games (4-7-4) since that surprising winning streak.

Bringing a three-game losing streak into Thursday’s home game against the Florida Panthers would be bad enough, but it gets worse when you realize that Phil Housley’s ruling Jack Eichel out for at least the next two games.

Eichel isn’t getting much Hart Trophy buzz, yet – with all due respect to Evan Rodrigues – things get dicey without Buffalo’s captain.

Via Left Wing Lock, the Sabres are expected to place Rodrigues on what’s been an impressive top line, as Eichel normally combines with Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart.

Things get stark beyond that, particularly with Vladimir Sobotka pressed into second-line duty. (Sobotka’s suffering with really bad possession numbers, and only has five points in 37 games during his first season with the Sabres after that Ryan O'Reilly trade.)

There’s not much sense in straining too hard to look for positives here, although there are some interesting things to consider:

  • How will Skinner play without Eichel?

It’s been downright refreshing to see Skinner flourish with an elite center, even if Buffalo’s capologists will disagree regarding the pending free agent. Skinner’s long been an underrated scorer – at least since he’s gotten over scary concussion issues earlier in his career – so this near-point-per-game pace has been fun to watch.

That said, Skinner’s play has undoubtedly been enhanced by Eichel’s presence, not to mention well-timed puck luck (21.3 shooting percentage), which has helped him exceed last season’s 24 goals with 26 already in 2018-19.

Two/a few games wouldn’t stand as the sort of sample size to make any broader judgments about Skinner, yet they could provide an interesting look into how Skinner (and the Sabres) can perform without that star center.

When I first heard about Eichel missing time, I wondered if the silver lining could be Mittelstadt getting a chance to take a bigger role, possibly even stepping into that top center gig.

Of course, that would be a decision made based on his pedigree as a prominent draft pick and prospect, rather than what he’s accomplished so far this season.

After coming into 2018-19 with significant Calder Trophy buzz, Mittelstadt only has 11 points through 40 games while averaging just 13:29 TOI per game. His underlying numbers don’t exactly blow you away (at least not in a good way) either.

Still, I wonder if there’s upside to giving Mittelstadt that shot, rather than placing him in the fourth-line role it appears he’ll take on against Florida on Thursday. Sometimes a talented-but-struggling player can get a boost from playing with other skilled players. If nothing else, there seems like more upside to deploying Mittelstadt as the 2C rather than an also-struggling Sobotka.

Just throwing it out there.

  • But what about Eichel’s routine?

These details from SI’s Alex Prewitt seem less fun. Will Eichel at least get more control over the apples he’s eating now that he’s day-to-day?

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Buffalo might learn some lessons with Eichel out, whether it’s for two games or more. Unfortunately, there’s a chance many of those lessons will end up being painful.

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.