Sounds like Jack Eichel is happy with Sabres’ offseason

Sounds like Jack Eichel is happy with Sabres' offseason
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A few months ago, it seemed like Jack Eichel was teetering somewhere between “fed up with the Sabres losing” and “fed up enough to demand a trade.” After a busy Sabres offseason, it sounds like Eichel’s outlook as improved.

Frankly, those positive feelings are justified. Despite a light staff, new GM Kevyn Adams made some shrewd moves. Landing Taylor Hall with low-risk term ranks as the move most likely to make Eichel smile. Beyond that, Eric Staal seems like a significant upgrade over Marcus Johansson.

Not a bad bit of work, and Eichel clearly noticed.

“Whenever you can add people like Taylor Hall and Eric Staal and Cody Eakin to your roster and the locker room, they not only bring talent to the ice but also veteran presence to the locker room,” Eichel said, via NHL.com. “In a situation like ours where we’re trying to find a winning culture with a young group and trying to figure out the right way to do things at times, I think having older guys can help you out especially during periods of adversity.

“It’s awesome.”

Sabres still have a way to go, but this was a positive offseason, as Eichel notes

Again, Taylor Hall gives Eichel someone to take “the pressure off.”

Really, Hall can help Eichel whether he’s on his line, or on a different one. As much as Eichel totes the puck, Hall is a beast in transition in his own right. Would it make more sense to have them share that wealth on the same line, or drive play separately? That’s up to Ralph Krueger.

With Staal, the Sabres add a sturdy, high-quality center. He’s not at that Ryan O'Reilly level any longer, but Staal gives Buffalo another adept one-two punch down the middle.

(Unless the Sabres view a 36-year-old Staal as more of a 3C at this point?)

Now, not every Sabres move should leave Eichel smiling.

Allowing Dominik Kahun to walk remains perplexing. While it’s a minor tweak, seeing solid defensive forward Johan Larsson leave for seemingly inferior veteran Cody Eakin isn’t so hot, either. You could also nitpick the Sabres selecting Jack Quinn at eighth overall in the 2020 NHL Draft, although that’s more likely to affect the wider future.

Quibbles aside, the Sabres made Eichel’s life easier by adding Hall and Staal.

If they want to keep Eichel smiling, then it’s likely about improving from within, though.

Can Sabres get more out of the rest of the roster?

Ultimately, there are some make-or-break factors that go beyond how Hall and Staal fit in.

  • Will the Sabres receive adequate goaltending?

Barring unforeseen changes, Buffalo’s rolling with the tandem of Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton. While Ullmark brings higher expectations, a compressed schedule means the Sabres will likely need to lean on both. So will Hutton indeed bounce back after getting his vision issues settled?

  • A transfer of power from one Rasmus to the other.

For all the progress Krueger made — subtle at times, or obvious — he continued the Sabres’ puzzling trend of leaning heavily on deeply flawed defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.

While it’s heartening that Ristolainen received less absurd ice time in 2019-20 (22:48 TOI average) than 2018-19 (24:38) and before (as much as 26:30 in 2017-18), that’s still too much Risto.

Rolling out Ristolainen so often is doubly puzzling when the superior Rasmus Dahlin saw his ice time sink (21:09 as a rookie to just 19:18 under Krueger). The Sabres didn’t drastically improve their defense this offseason, but can at least make some steps with wiser deployment.

  • Can other forwards rebound, or break through?

Considering a $9 million cap hit that feels eternal, most Jeff Skinner news is bad news. But consider this: at least Skinner lacked the bounces (7.7 shooting percentage in 2019-20) that helped him earn such a payday (14.9 percent in 2018-19). While better puck luck won’t make Skinner worth $9M, it could at least set the stage for him to be a better contributor.

Also, maybe Casey Mittelstadt can look a bit like a high first-rounder (eighth overall in 2017) for the Sabres?

At 22, Mittelstadt is getting to the point where it’s less and less encouraging to just blurt out the word “potential” when people worry about those middling stats. If nothing else, the young forward has had plenty of time to work on his game. If we don’t see more from him soon, he might get thrown in the “possible bust” heap with former Sabres first-rounder Alex Nylander. Not good.

What if the Sabres still fall short?

The Taylor Hall signing is an interesting test case for Eichel’s outlook with the Sabres.

On one hand, only signing Hall for a year reduces risks. Considering Hall’s style of play, the physical toll really might slow him down the line. At 29, Staal may already be on decline.

So keeping that risk to just one year is smart. Yet, if things don’t work out, will Eichel and the Sabres merely be back to square one?

The future might not be all bad. While there’s uncertainty in net, both Ullmark and Hutton go off the books after 2020-21. The Sabres could look into a different goalie, perhaps someone like Frederik Andersen.

The slate is also pretty clean to explore other avenues, as Staal joins Hall in only being on the books for one season.

Overall, it’s understandable that Eichel is pleased with some of the Sabres’ offseason moves, but he still might need to be patient.

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.

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    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

    Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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    DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

    The team announced the news on social media.

    MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

    The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.