PITTSBURGH – As the one-quarter mark of Jack Eichel’s third NHL season approaches, the Buffalo Sabres center possesses some pretty underwhelming statistics.
Seventeen games into another trying campaign, the slumping Eichel has four goals and 14 points. Over an 82-game season, that equals 19 goals and 68 points.
But Eichel, of course, is held to a higher standard. At just 21 years old, he’s the face of the franchise and the Sabres’ most talented player. They awarded him an eight-year, $80 million contract extension last month.
So the Sabres expect much more from Eichel, who has a seven-game goal drought entering tonight’s tilt against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
“I feel like people are judged based off statistics so frequently, and so is the case with our league for a reason,” Eichel said Monday following practice inside KeyBank Center. “That’s my job, my job is to produce.
“I haven’t obviously produced in the fashion I would have liked early in the year, but it’s a long season. The ‘puck luck,’ the bounces, that sort of thing will start coming around.”
This is Eichel’s longest goalless stretch since a seven-game run in February last season. Eichel, however, kept producing offense in that period, compiling eight assists. In his current dry spell, he has three assists.
His strong 2016-17 season – he scored 24 goals and 57 points in 60 games, ranking 10th in NHL scoring after his Nov. 29 debut – raised expectations considerably. At least 30 goals and 80 points seemed reasonable for this year.
Eichel’s hardly alone in his offensive struggles. He’s just the face of the problem. The Sabres have scored only 40 goals as a team, the league’s second-lowest total. Their power play ranks 29th and they haven’t managed an even-strength goal in the last two games.
“I didn’t generate anything five-on-five,” Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly said of his performance in Saturday’s 2-1 overtime loss in Montreal. “That’s something I got to do. You can’t look at other guys to create offense. … Most chances I’m getting offensive-zone faceoffs and I’m not turning (them) into opportunities.”
With goals so hard to score, Eichel has been putting pressure on himself and forcing plays.
“I like to think I’ve had pressure on myself my whole life,” Eichel said. “I don’t think anyone’s harder on themselves than I am on myself. I think everyone’s their own hardest critic.”
While he’s often the most talented player on the ice, stars simply can’t take over games like they used to years ago.
“He’s trying to do the right things, he means well,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said. “He’s just got to continue to work through it.”
So Housley has been reminding Eichel to play a simple team game.
“The simplicity of his game, not trying to do too much, using his teammates, trusting his teammates and shooting the puck more,” he said.
Ah, yes, shooting. Housley has been harping on Eichel, whose wicked wrist shot ranks among the league’s best, to pump more pucks on net. He has 52 shots this season, 3.1 a game. He registered 249 shots in 61 games last season, 4.1 a contest.
Imagine what one more Eichel shot each game could mean?
Housley has preached a shot mentality from the get-go, something the Sabres must embrace. When an offense is in a rut, O’Reilly said, shooting the puck and getting to the net, something else the Sabres haven’t consistently accomplished, can be the easiest remedy.
“We got to establish that,” he said. “That’s when I think it might give us a little more time where plays will open up and little things happen.”
Even when they’re off their game, top offensive talents can keep making things happen and produce a couple of good chances a night.
“Jack is creating, so I’m not worried about the offensive part of his game,” Housley said. “I think he’s doing really good things away from the puck and he’s got to take what the game gives him.”
Eichel said some bounces went his way earlier in this season. In some recent games, however, he believes he performed well but wasn’t rewarded.
“You’re getting opportunities, you’re just not finding anything, you’re not getting rewarded on the stat sheet but you know you’re doing good things so you’re staying positive,” he said. “That was kind of the case with me. I felt my game was good but I wasn’t being rewarded. …
“You’re going to go through ups and downs, just maybe fighting the puck, doing too much thinking. (I need to) just get back to playing, moving my feet, doing the things that make me successful.”