CHICAGO – Jack Eichel belongs in Buffalo.
He’s not Connor McDavid, nor should Buffalo Sabres fans expect him to be like Connor McDavid. The latter is the Chosen One, Hockey Jesus, the kid many have called the best NHL Draft prospect since that can’t-miss prodigy the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted first overall.
That’s not what Buffalo is. Eichel is Buffalo. You can sense there’s already a chip on his shoulder the size of Lake Erie because of McDavid. Because he’s synonymous with Connor instead of being his own player. Because in nearly any other draft year, he’d have been the one the hockey world would be fawning over rather than being “that other franchise player,” a phrase simultaneously praising and damning.
“Sure. We’ll be linked together for a while. We’ve been linked together for the last few years, so that’s not going to change,” said Eichel.
“Whether it’s Connor or someone else, there’s always going to be someone pushing you.”
Eichel only met McDavid for the first time in Buffalo last week at the 2015 NHL Draft Combine, right outside the HarborCenter.
“Yeah, the two of us were just walking down the street, just bumped into each other, shook hands, and that was it. I don’t think we wanted to make a big deal of it as everyone else did,” said Eichel.
“We kind of hung around,” said McDavid. “Obviously this trip we're a little bit closer. It's been a good chance to get to know him.”
The two don’t interact all that much as they stand in the Chicago Blackhawks locker room, waiting for the annual chance for the top prospects to chat with NHL stars that blazed their trail. McDavid is in the back, scanning the lockers with other prospects. Eichel, much looser when the cameras aren’t on him, smiles through a few conversations with media.
It’s that side of Eichel you hope emerges as he settles into being the face of the Sabres. The guy who sucks down booze from the Beanpot and bellows “BUFFALO, I’M COMING FOR YOU” into a friend’s camera phone. The guy who candidly handicapped his college options, including the virtues of Arizona State's co-eds.
You hope he's comfortable, because Buffalo will make him comfortable. The city is ready to love this guy.
There are probably more Eichel T-shirts available than there are for the Stanley Cup Final. (We’re partial to the “I LIKE EICH” one.) And Eichel’s name is mentioned pretty much in one out of every three tweets sent by Sabres fans.
“I’m always on Twitter and Instagram and stuff like that. That’s where I kind of realized how crazy the Buffalo fans really were. The fans in Buffalo are pretty crazy,” said Eichel.
“It seems like it probably cranked up another level after the lottery, when the places we would end up were not set in stone, but likely. And that’s probably when it started to take off even more.”
The mania was evidenced by how many people approached him during the combine.
“Whether it was going out to dinner or just walking around, they obviously, like I said, really support their hockey. It was a really cool experience. I think it was pretty neat for me to be a part of the combine, have the combine in Buffalo,” he said.
“Obviously nothing is set in stone, but seems like right now Buffalo is where I’d be.”
Barring an unexpected Extinction Level Event involving a comet hitting South Florida, the Sabres are going to select Eichel with the No. 2 pick in the draft. But Eichel swears that he hasn’t made up his mind quite yet about where he’ll play next season – in the NHL or at Boston University.
“There’s a lot of pros and cons about going both places. It’s not an easy decision — that’s why I haven’t really made it yet,” he said.
Eichel said there’s a band of brothers at BU that he’s not eager to leave, as well as an insatiable feeling that there’s a national championship left to win.
“There’s some unfinished business,” said Eichel, whose team lost the title game to Providence, 4-3. “It was definitely tough to lose the last game, and I think that’s one of the lures of coming back — we didn’t graduate too many guys. Obviously we lost our goalie and two of our top-six forwards. But coach Quinn did a great job of recruiting, so we’re bringing in a lot of great players. I think we’ll be another competitor next year.”
That’s a lot of “we” for Eichel when discussing Boston University.
Probably force of habit.
There is a school of thought that Eichel should stay in school, giving Buffalo another year out of the money to draft highly and giving him another year of preparation before hitting the NHL.
But ultimately it may be Eichel’s decision.
“[I’ll decide] after the draft. Probably sooner than later. I’d like to know what I’m doing this summer. Probably pretty quickly after the draft, I’ll finalize my decision,” he said.
So Sabres fans wait to see if the Franchise decides to join the franchise next season. Eichel, for one, believes the Sabres are primed to contend.
“A lot of young, talented players. A lot of skill. I think they’ve done a really good job of developing young guys. As soon as they put it all together, which I’m sure they’re going to do really soon, it’s going to be a dangerous team,” he said.
Eichel’s ready to be its focal point, with the caveat that a rookie savior is still a rookie.
“You set the bar pretty high. You want to achieve some goals. Then again, you have to realize that you’re an 18 year old playing in the NHL. It’s not easy to do,” he said. “That being said, if you want to be one of the best players in the world, you set the bar really high.”
And there’s a guy in Edmonton who will help set that bar, every season, forever linked with the player chosen directly behind him in the draft ... a player that will measure himself against Connor McDavid.
“I think it’s in anyone’s competitive nature to be the best,” said Eichel.
MORE FROM YAHOO HOCKEY