Sabres' Jack Eichel focused on hockey, not contract talks
Former No. 2 pick entering last year of rookie deal
Buffalo Sabres star centre Jack Eichel is focused on taking on a larger leadership role, and not concerning himself with contract talks — even it means waiting until next year to sign a new deal.
"I have no problem playing the season out and just trying to earn whatever," Eichel said Tuesday. "We know where we stand. We know where the Sabres stand. If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen."
Eichel also reiterated his commitment to staying in Buffalo on a long-term basis. He spoke after taking part in his first on-ice session with numerous teammates in Buffalo a little over a week before the Sabres open training camp.
The 20-year-old is entering the final season of his three-year rookie contract, and in line for what is projected to be a lucrative contract extension.
A person with direct knowledge of talks told The Associated Press last month that both sides have discussed a contract spanning an NHL-maximum eight seasons. The same person told The AP on Tuesday that negotiations haven't stopped since the two sides formally opened talks in June. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because negotiations have been private.
'The biggest year of my career'
Buffalo selected Eichel with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, one spot behind Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid, who earned NHL MVP honours last season. In July, McDavid cashed in by signing eight-year, $100 million contract, which will make him the league's top-paid player on a per-season basis for the start of the 2018-19 season.
Eichel is not surprised he hasn't yet agreed to contract extension, and has instead spent the summer focusing on hockey.
"I looked at my summer as preparation for the biggest year of my career so far," he said. "And that's the way I'll continue to look at it."
This season represents a fresh start for Eichel and the Sabres, who underwent an off-season overhaul after extending their franchise-worst playoff drought to sixth year. General manager Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma were fired in April, and replaced by Jason Botterill and Phil Housley.
Eichel was frustrated over last season's finish, and acknowledged he needs to be better in various aspects, including leadership.
"I look at myself to be one of the leaders on this team, and a guy who's going to push this organization to the next level," he said. "If that's going to be the case, then I've got to be a guy that everyone leans on. And I've got to be better in all aspects of hockey, on or off the ice."
Culture change needed in Buffalo
Eichel led Buffalo with 57 points (24 goals, 33 assists) in 61 games last year despite missing the first 21 games of the season with a sprained left ankle.
He is looking forward to playing for Housley, the Hall of Fame defenceman and former Sabres player. Housley intends to introduce a high-tempo, puck-possession approach similar to the Nashville Predators, where he spent the previous four seasons as an assistant coach.
"Pushing the pace, playing with the puck, possessing it, playing fast, all that stuff bodes well for me," said Eichel, who met Housley in person for the first time on Tuesday.
Botterill spent the off-season retooling the Sabres, particularly on defence with the additions of Marco Scandella in a trade with Minnesota, Nathan Beaulieu in a trade with Montreal, and Victor Antipin, who jumped to the NHL last spring after playing in Russia.
The Sabres were also in need of a culture change after owner Terry Pegula criticized the team for lacking discipline, structure and communication upon firing Murray and Bylsma.
"With the way things ended, I think it's good for everyone to have a bit of a fresh start," Eichel said. "That can be a good thing for some guys who obviously didn't have the best relationships the last few years."