BUFFALO – A year ago, frustration overwhelmed Jack Eichel as he talked about the Sabres’ awful season. The center looked restless, staring off into the distance while offering mostly terse answers.
Basically, Eichel came off as immature.
On Monday morning, however, Eichel, 21, acted like a leader discussing the Sabres’ 31st-place finish, a season much worse than a year ago. He answered every question thoughtfully, even passionately. He looked every questioner in the eye.
“I’ve figured out a better way to communicate with you guys, for sure,” Eichel said as the Sabres cleaned out their lockers and held exit interviews inside KeyBank Center. “We talk every day. We might as well make our relationship a good one. I think last year I was frustrated, bitter, a bit upset. Not at you guys at all. But at the way things went.
“I think I probably just didn’t handle things the right way. You look back, that’s a year ago. I think I’ve learned some things. I’ve matured a bit as a person.”
Of course, Eichel, the Sabres’ leading scorer, acknowledged he’s frustrated.
“But it’s not a time to sit here and pout and give you guys one-word answers,” he said. “I think … we have to communicate a message to our fans, our organization, our city that as bad as things were, we’re going to change it, we’re going to change things around here.
“It starts with the guys in the room. It starts with me. It starts with (center Ryan O’Reilly), it starts with (defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen), it starts with the guys that are our leaders.”
Eichel, whose eight-year, $80 million contract kicks in next season, is the face of the franchise and its best player. The Sabres will only start going places and end their seven-year playoff drought if he performs like a superstar.
Even after recording 25 goals and 64 points in 67 games and earning his first NHL All-Star appearance, the youngster knows he must change along with everyone else.
“There needs to be change,” he said. “Everybody needs to look at themselves and figure out what they’re doing. Change it myself. Obviously, whatever I’ve been doing hasn’t been working. What we’ve been doing as a team hasn’t been working.”
That’s why major changes are expected following a wretched 25-45-12 season, the first under coach Phil Housley and general manager Jason Botterill.
While few expected the Sabres to be a playoff team, they regressed mightily, earning only 62 points, 16 fewer than last season.
Housley has one big question for his players moving forward.
“What are they willing to change?” he said. “I think that’s the biggest question as we move forward, what are they going to personally invest in this summer to change? … What are we willing to change to change this atmosphere?”
That starts with being ready in September. Housley’s first camp featured lots of teaching, meaning the conditioning aspect took a backseat. In five months, he plans to be a lot tougher on the Sabres.
“I’ve got to lead, right?” he said. “When … you’re implementing these systems and the philosophy and the structure, that takes time. We don’t have to go through that. We know how we want to play as a team.
“We have to be ready to go. I think our start is going to be crucial for our season next year, and that starts in training camp. We can talk about the results that we had this year, but our playoffs start on the first day of training camp.”
The Sabres endured a brutal opening month this season, losing their first five games. They never recovered.
Ultimately, Housley believes a strong start next season can help lift the black cloud that has been hanging over the Sabres for years and change the culture.
“That’s going to be really important … because then you can get some confidence moving forward, because when you’ve been in this environment and you start to lose, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on you as an individual,” he said. “So that goes back (to) what are you willing to change, how you going to get better this summer to make a difference?”
While the Sabres finished 35 points out of a playoff spot, dramatic turnarounds are possible in today’s NHL. The Colorado Avalanche, the league’s worst team a year ago, improved a stunning 47 points, clinching a playoff berth. So did the New Jersey Devils, who earned 27 more points.
“I look at Colorado, there’s a group of players there that got together and said, ‘We need to change, we need to do things different, we need to listen, we need to be coachable,’ and you can see the result,” Housley said. “It requires a big commitment, it’s a huge commitment to change the direction of this franchise.”