BUFFALO, N.Y. — Connor McDavid put on a No. 97 Edmonton Oilers jersey the day he was drafted. Jack Eichel won’t wear the No. 15 he picked out until he makes the Buffalo Sabres.
Eichel, who was chosen second behind McDavid in the NHL draft, will make the Sabres and is the face of the franchise’s turnaround. But the 18-year-old out of Boston University refuses to switch from the No. 41 he wore at the rookie tournament and development camp until coach Dan Bylsma tells him he has won a job.
“This is still training camp, so I think the most important thing is I still have to earn a position and earn a role on the Sabres,” Eichel said Friday after his first practice. “When that time comes, if it does come, I’ll make the change from 41 to 15.”
No matter what number is on his jersey, Eichel is considered a generational talent like McDavid, and expectations are high for his rookie season. He started camp as Buffalo’s unofficial No. 2 centre between Matt Moulson — who thrived as a linemate of John Tavares with the New York Islanders — and all-star Zemgus Girgensons.
Thanks to the acquisitions of winger Evander Kane and centre Ryan O’Reilly, Bylsma and other players know Eichel doesn’t have to carry the Sabres on his shoulders.
“The great thing that we have right now is that he doesn’t have to go out and be the star on our team,” Bylsma said. “He needs to learn and improve and develop as a player, and when he does, he will be effective.”
Eichel’s skating is already NHL calibre, but Bylsma said he’ll have to learn to play at a higher pace with and without the puck. Those who have skated with him in recent weeks see the flashes of skill and fully understand they don’t mean he’ll be a star right away.
“I think Jack’s got extremely raw talent, and the NHL’s a fast-paced, structured game,” top-line winger Tyler Ennis said. “Like a lot of us, he’s going to have to learn along the way and be prepared to play a high pace, and I don’t think that should be a problem for him because of how well he can skate.”
Eichel expected the high pace of Bylsma’s first practice as Sabres coach, which was well north of anything he experienced at the college level, where he won the Hobey Baker Award as the top NCAA player. He had the benefit of skating alongside Moulson, with whom he is living this season.
Moulson reached out to Sabres general manager Tim Murray around the draft to say he and his wife wouldn’t mind housing Eichel. Moulson also served as Tavares’s landlord when the Islanders superstar was a rookie.
“He really is a great kid with a big heart,” Moulson said of Eichel. “I think it’ll be a really fun year. He’s got that youthful energy about him that kind of flows through me when he’s at home and his excitement and energy.”
Murray and Bylsma were all for the idea, but Eichel took some time before deciding to say yes. He said that’s because he didn’t want to assume he’d be in the NHL.
“It’s tough for me to commit to something like that prior to making the team,” Eichel said. “For me I didn’t want to tell him that I’d be living with him until I made the team. That’s still the situation. I have to earn that. I’m just trying to do that.”
Bylsma loves that Eichel is taking that approach, even though No. 15 shirts and jerseys are already selling well in the Buffalo area. Eichel-mania is rampant, but the North Chelmsford, Mass., native said it’s a “buzz around the whole team.”
Eichel also sounded mature beyond his years about how the Sabres won’t undergo a 180-degree change overnight. But as they begin the process of trying to contend, Eichel will be a major part of that.
“He is 18, it’s going to be a bit of a learning curve, but he’s a special player for a reason,” defenceman Mike Weber said. “We’re expecting to have big things out of him.”
Eichel expects big things out of himself, too, believing no player puts more pressure on himself than he does.
“I want to do well because I’m a competitive guy, and I want to find success just like anyone else,” Eichel said. “I want to come in and find a role and then make a difference for this team and help them win games. That’s why they drafted me and that’s why they’re giving me this opportunity.”
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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press