– Evan Sally
I owe Jack Eichel an apology.
Earlier this year when he was in the middle of his incredible and historic rookie season, I wondered on a Hard Foul Podcast if it was possible that Sam Reinhart was actually more important than Jack Eichel. My reasoning was that if Sam Reinhart could become truly great he could be the second superstar the Sabres needed to become a championship contender. Not the craziest sentiment in the world right? Sam Reinhart is undoubtedly very very important to this team’s future. But I did something I should have never done, and that’s take Jack Eichel and his greatness for granted. When you have a great player you assume that they’re always going to be around; you can’t imagine your team without them because you don’t want to. After Jack went down with his injury the day before the season started (and a million Sabres fans looked at the sky and screamed “WHY????”), I knew things would be bad without him. But I honestly had no idea quite how much he would be missed. The Sabres were dire to watch and soul sucking to think about for the first 21 games this season, something that isn’t a secret to any Sabres fan. A few other injuries contributed to how poorly the team had started, but they all pale in comparison to #15. He represents hope on skates. Without him the team was miserable to watch and it wasn’t just about the lack of scoring, it was about losing that moment that happens in every game Jack Eichel plays where he does one or two things that make you think “I can’t believe we have THAT GUY on our hockey team.”
So when the buzz started to build and it was finally confirmed that Jack would be returning Tuesday against Ottawa, you could feel it. The city was ready for its sports hero to return. I had a pep in my step all day during the lead up to the game. People were asking me why I was seemed different, why I seemed so upbeat on a Tuesday and through a goofy grin I’d tell them “Didn’t you hear, Jack Eichel is back!” My enthusiasm was matched if not topped by Twitter. I lost count of how many mini-tribute video I had seen celebrating his return. Hell even guys like Eric Wood and Thurman Thomas were tweeting about how excited they were. It got to the point where even I had to take a moment and wonder are we hyping this guy’s return too much?
“I mean he is coming off an injury, and he’s only 20 years old, there may be some rust or a sophomore slump in play here.”
Then the game started.
With Jack it’s just different. After 21 games of watching mere mortals (and whatever Josh Gorges is) skate around in Sabres sweaters, Eichel looked like a different species. It’s funny because guys like Kyle Okposo, Ryan O’Reilly and the aforementioned Sam Reinhart are very good hockey players and even still Eichel is a cut above. I’m sure he was a tad rusty last night, and at the very least he wasn’t in full game shape and it did show at times. But within the first 10 minutes of the 1st period, Eichel had already collected a goal and an assist, quickly reclaiming his title of best passer and player with the best show as well as helping give the Sabres higher quality scoring chances than they had all season. He makes everyone else better, not only with his passing and his presence on the ice, but he also pushes talent down the Sabres roster and gives guys better opportunities against worse opponents. He makes the power play, already ranked 5th in the league, even more potent. He makes food taste better, and flowers bloom brighter. Ok I’m not entirely sure of that last part, but it’s truly hard to overstate how important he is. He breathes life into this team.
But we all know that. We all anticipated his return and he delivered with flying colors and I think that might be the coolest part about Eichel and what makes him different than than every other “Great Buffalo Sports Hope” that I can remember. Not only does he deliver on our expectations; he’s not burdened by our sports hopes and dreams. He takes them and runs with them. The Sabres have a ton of issues, especially in defense, issues that were fully on display against Ottawa. And as great Eichel is the Sabres still probably need to add more offense. It’s still on Tim Murray to figure out how to turn this team into a winner. But all of those problems fade slightly into the background when Jack is back. Because with him it’s just different.
– Evan Sally (Twitter)