BUFFALO – Rookie Jack Eichel felt the anticipation building for his NHL debut long before the Sabres drafted him second overall 104 days ago. The center knows the excited Buffalo fans see him as the future of the franchise.
But to Eichel, 18, the new chapter the revamped Sabres will begin tonight against the Ottawa Senators, the so-called “Eichel Era,” is about much more than one player.
“We have a pretty young team,” Eichel said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of young guys that are going to be here for a while, so I think the fans can look to a lot of people.”
“They’re still pretty young,” Eichel said. “I think we’re the future, if I could say it better.”
At least six players, including Kane and O’Reilly, will make their Sabres debut tonight inside the First Niagara Center. Dan Bylsma, meanwhile, will coach his first NHL game since May 14, 2014.
“It’s not quite like coaching your first game, but there is a high level of excitement getting ready for this game, this season,” said Bylsma, who won the 2009 Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Most of that excitement can be traced to Eichel, a player so talented the Sabres basically threw away last season for the opportunity to draft him. His debut is the most anticipated by a Sabres rookie in recent memory.
“It’s going to be a special moment for me,” Eichel said. “It’s something I’ve dreamed of my whole life, stepping foot on that ice, (making) the NHL. I’m trying to soak it all in right now, like everything that’s going on in my life. It’s all happened really quickly. …
“It’s kind of been a whirlwind, but you’re finally playing hockey for a living. Everything you’ve done for your whole life is to get to this point. So it’s pretty special.”
Win or lose, three goals or zero, Eichel will be a story each game. To Bylsma, Eichel hasn’t quite grasped all the expectations around him.
“I’m not so sure he feels it just yet,” he said. “So I hope he doesn’t feel it. I hope he’s kind of ignorant to all the talk, because it really is outside his sphere, it really is outside our team.”
Eichel hasn’t bought into the hype surrounding him. He often deflects questions about himself and talks about the team.
Sabres defenseman Josh Gorges figured as one of biggest prospects in years, Eichel might be a little full of himself.
“You almost expect a little cockiness,” Gorges said. “But he hasn’t been that way at all. Everything he’s done is the right way to do things. He’s been very professional about his attitude.”
Still, to play in the NHL, Gorges believes “you have to have a little bit of swagger, you have to have confidence.”
“He’s got that great mix of confidence but he’s very humble in it,” he said about Eichel. “He’s not boastful, he’s not going to throw it in people’s faces. He’s an honest, good player.”
And a “pretty cool kid,” Gorges said.
“He’s very laid back, very easy going, but very driven at the same time,” he said. “You watch his mannerisms and the way he prepares and the way he plays, he’s a special talent. But you can see this fire in him that pushes him to want to be better, to want to be great. I think that’s what separates the good players from the great players, is that desire to want to be great.”
Eichel said he just wants to be treated like anyone else.
“I don’t deserve any special treatment,” he said. “Nobody else does. That’s what makes a team. Everyone has the same mindset and everyone’s treated the same way. Nobody’s above the team.”
Bylsma informed Eichel on Wednesday morning he had made the team, news he had been waiting to hear.
Eichel, who has been wearing No. 41, a camp number given to him, picked No. 15 in July. He refused to switch it, however, until he was officially on the roster.
He will change his number reluctantly, Bylsma said.
“He’s going to change, although he thought maybe he had done pretty well in training camp and he shouldn’t change,” he said. “I told him he played bad last game and freed him up to change.”