BUFFALO – Hearing the question frustrates Jack Eichel. Despite the Sabres’ sorry state, the center wanted to return badly from the high right ankle sprain he suffered last month.
For Eichel, 21, shutting down his season because the Sabres are out of the playoff race – some fans believe his prolonged absence would improve the team’s draft status – wasn’t an option.
So Eichel, who played Saturday afternoon following a 15-game absence, doesn’t like getting asked why he returned this season.
“It’s a pretty simple answer, to be honest with you,” Eichel said passionately this morning. “I’m playing because I’m a hockey player. It’s kind of ridiculous for somebody to think we’re out of the playoffs and we don’t have an opportunity to really do anything with our season that I would just pack my year in. It’s not who I am as a person, it’s not who I’ve ever been, it’s not who I am as a hockey player.
“At the end of the day, I love to play hockey. Whether we’re in first place or last place in the league, it doesn’t matter to me. I like to put my equipment on, go out there and play hockey. That’s why I’m playing. I love to play and I have a lot of fun doing it. It’s what I look most forward to in my day. There’s not really quite a feeling like it, so I enjoy it every day.
“I’m a competitor, I want to be out there competing. I want to play, so that’s why I’m playing.”
Eichel said “there should be a lot more questions asked if I decided I did want to pack it in, end my season.”
“I looked at my rehab process as if I was coming back to compete to try to get to the playoffs,” he said. “Obviously, that’s not the case, but I try to put myself in the best position to come back and impact this team in a positive way. That’s all part of us building a culture out there. We should all want to be out there every night. I think that that’s important.”
Of course, the Sabres’ leading scorer and only NHL All-Star was smart about his injury, the second high ankle sprain he suffered in two seasons.
“I think I did a great job in terms of not rushing it,” Eichel said. “I think at the time of the injury, if you ask me how quick I would’ve played, I probably took a little more time to be safe, be cautious. That’s being smart. There’s a lot more hockey that I hope to play in my career. This is not something that I want to continue to deal with over the summer.”
He added: “I’m not really risking anything at this point.”
Check back later for more on the Sabres, who held an optional practice today inside KeyBank Center.