BOSTON — “It’s crazy how good he is.”
That’s how Buffalo Sabres goaltender Chad Johnson chose to describe teammate Jack Eichel, who played against his hometown Boston Bruins for the first time Saturday night at TD Garden.
Eichel, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, came into the pros as a highly skilled power forward. A center with tremendous size willing to play a physical game and fight for possession in dirty areas, but also capable of burning talented defensemen with tantalizing skills — slick hands, quick acceleration and a great shot, to name a few.
“He?s a gifted player,” Bruins head coach Claude Julien said before Saturday’s game at TD Garden, which Buffalo won 6-3. “I think he sees the ice well. I love his hockey sense. He?s one of those guys that?s strong on the puck. For his age, I think his maturity level not just intellectually, but also physically is pretty good for a guy his age.”
This goal from Nov. 5, in which Eichel made a great move to evade an opponent at the blue line and then use his strength to fight of a hook, was a prime example of his impressive repertoire:
Eichel’s had moments of brilliance throughout the season, but like most young players, consistency has been a bit of an issue. Before scoring a career-high four points (two goals, two assists) Saturday, Eichel had gone seven games without a goal.
Still, he’s fourth in rookie scoring with 20 points, and his 10 goals rank second among first-year players. He’s helping the Sabres generate offense in other ways, too.
Buffalo has attempted 434 shots and created 221 scoring chances at even strength with Eichel on the ice, both of which rank second among Buffalo forwards. A lot of Eichel’s shots are coming from scoring areas, too, as evidenced by his 91 high-danger scoring chances at even strength (third-most among all rookies).
He also leads rookies with 108 shots on goal and 19:05 time on ice per game, including consistent opportunities on the power-play and penalty-kill units. His defense — including the ability to strip pucks, win 1-on-1 battles along the boards and break up passes with an active stick — is impressive for a young player.
“Obviously you want to produce points, right? You want something to show on the scoresheet after the games, and you think you’ve played well, but a lot of times there’s things you can build off in the game that didn’t show up in the scoresheet,” Eichel said.
“If it was a good backcheck or you broke up a big play or won a faceoff for your team. The way I look at it is if you’re getting the chances and you’re around the net and you feel good about your game, then you’re probably playing pretty well.
“There was a stretch of games where I didn’t feel good about my game, and I think I’m starting to get it back where I’m happy.”
Expecting a 19-year-old player to step into the highest level of hockey and dominate often is foolish. Only a handful of players have performed at an elite level at that age. Eichel has played well, though, and there’s plenty of evidence through three months to suggest he’s going to be an excellent player.
“It’s unbelievable how much pressure is on him and the attention that’s on him,” Johnson said. “… This guy is so good at 19. I think of where I was at 19 years old, playing college hockey, and he’s in the NHL going through guys like veteran D-men.
“He’s only going to get better with experience and the routine of the professional hockey player and the travel.”
Thumbnail photo via Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY Sports Images