There is a certain five-letter word used to describe the very best of a certain craft that always seems to spark debate among sports fans.
The word is “elite,” and according to Ryan O’Reilly Jack Eichel is absolutely deserving of the sacred title.
“You watch the guy train. You watch different things. He’s always pushing himself,” O’Reilly said of his former teammate. “He takes care of himself, and he’s always finding a way to get better that for young guys coming in, you want to look at that because he’s one of the elite players in the game.”
There it is. Two syllables, but a whole lot of implications. Surely, O’Reilly knows more about Eichel on and off the ice than just about anyone having spent the last three seasons playing with the 2015 second-overall pick.
But is Eichel truly elite?
Since Eichel entered the league, he has averaged .85 points-per-game, good for 19th best among all centres. This has made him more productive offensively than players like Patrice Bergeron and Logan Couture, while only being narrowly behind talents like Nathan MacKinnon (.89 ppg) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (.90 ppg).
One knock on Eichel is his ability in the faceoff dot. Among all centres who have played 100 games over the past three seasons, he has produced the 11th worst faceoff percentage of 187 eligible players. At just 40.5 percent, the 21-year old is pretty much a liability when he lines up at centre.
But considering all the things he does at a high-end level, that’s a relatively minor knock on the big man.
It’s shaping up to be a career year for Eichel, who has had his production and development limited the last two seasons due to injury. Outside of O’Reilly, Eichel also hasn’t had much help since arriving in Buffalo three years ago. The Sabres, who finished dead last in 2017-18, have been among the worst offensive teams over the last three seasons — they finished last in goals for last season — and given the talent deficiency that’s no surprise.
But with offensive dynamos Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt now in the mix, plus the additions of Jeff Skinner and Conor Sheary and the continued development of Sam Reinhart, Eichel will have more than enough support this season to help him finally become the elite player O’Reilly expects him to be .
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