BUFFALO – Two years ago, the NHL revamped its traditional All-Star Game, transforming the stale affair into a slick three-on-three tournament featuring six divisional squads.
The league also added a $1 million incentive for the winning team, a prize center Jack Eichel, the Sabres’ lone All-Star, said “brings a little more energy to the event.”
“You got something on the line, you got something to play for,” Eichel said this morning inside KeyBank Center. “I mean, it’s money, right? I think I read somewhere yesterday that Taylor Hall’s won both years in the three-on-three. I think he’s got paid over $150,000 from winning. That’s a pretty good chunk of money.
“Just watching it the past few years, it seems like the guys really enjoy the three-on-three.”
The money intrigues Eichel, who signed an eight-year, $80 million extension before the season. Still, the youngster said playing in his first game Jan. 28 in Tampa is “going to be a huge honor.”
“Something that you grow up watching and just some of the people that are going to be there, names and players I grew up watching and idolizing,” said Eichel, whose spot on the Atlantic Division’s team was announced Wednesday.
Of course, the game is just one part of the NHL All-Star experience. Eichel, 21, is one of the league’s most dynamic players. He should thrive in the skills competition Jan. 27.
Eichel said he’s open to participating in any event. He could be a candidate for the fastest skater competition.
“I was always a fan of (the skills competition),” he said. “It was always cool to see these guys. A lot of these guys playing in the All-Star Game I used to watch as a kid, so it’ll be pretty cool to play with them.”
Eichel wouldn’t have earned a spot if he didn’t bust out of a slump a month ago. Since recording his first hat trick Dec. 15, he has scored nine times in 11 games, tying him with Boston’s Patrice Bergeron for the most goals in that span. Eichel’s 15 points are tied for fourth.
Overall, Eichel has compiled 17 goals and 39 points in 43 games this season.
What has changed in the last few weeks?
“I don’t know if it’s anything serious,” Eichel said. “I think early in the year maybe I wasn’t getting breaks or finishing my shots, capitalizing on my opportunities. Statistically, it wasn’t showing.”
Eichel said he has recently been trying to disrupt and forecheck more.
“Maybe these last few games it’s been a little bit more simple for me,” he said. “(I’m) just trying to get pucks to the net, use my speed and my body to create chances, and maybe earlier in the year I was (fine-tuning) and trying to make the perfect play.”
The Sabres host the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight.