Jack Eichel has seen plenty of changes from the Buffalo Sabres this offseason, but his attitude toward their success hasn’t.
“For sure, still fed up with losing,” Eichel said Wednesday. “That never changes. I think any competitor wants to win. But I think I’ve tried to harness that as much as I can and use that in a productive manner to try and get better, prepare for the season. And obviously try and change that.”
The Sabres, who opened training camp on Thursday, were one of seven teams not to make the Stanley Cup Qualifiers last season, finishing with a .493 points percentage (30-31-8). They have not made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2010-11.
But there’s reason for the Sabres to be optimistic about this season. New general manager Kevyn Adams, hired on June 16, has been busy this offseason, signing forward Taylor Hall to a one-year, $8 million contract — which Eichel called “an exciting moment for our franchise, for the city” — and forward Cody Eakin to a two-year, $4.5 million contract, and trading forward Marcus Johansson to the Minnesota Wild for forward Eric Staal on Sept. 17.
And as much as Eichel said he believes in the newly acquired players, the center said he believes as much in those at the top of the organization, in a potentially new way of doing things, and what that might mean for a franchise that has seen more than its fair share of new faces.
“I made it clear to Jack right in the beginning that I want to build a relationship with him,” Adams said. “I want to get to know him. I want him to get to know me and I want this to be a situation where we all help each other. We all want the same thing and so you can’t have that immediately. You have to build trust as you go and that’s what I want to do with Jack and all the players and coaches.”
And though Eichel said he was surprised when Buffalo decided to replace Jason Botterill with Adams as general manager, he has been working hard to cement that relationship. He knows that stability and cohesion will go a long way to revitalizing a club that wants a spot in the playoffs.
“He’s super easy to connect with,” Eichel said. “I’ve had a lot of really, really good conversations with him; we’ve been able to sit down a few times and just get to know each other more than anything. And yeah, he’s been tremendous so far.”
They’ve communicated on what Adams is looking for, what he’s trying to build, with both the team and with his relationships with the players.
And that all starts with Eichel, who has established himself as the Sabres’ top player since being selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. Eichel has scored 337 points (137 goals, 200 assists) in 354 games with Buffalo. He scored 78 points (36 goals, 42 assists) in 68 games last season and made it into conversation for the Hart Trophy, awarded to the most valuable player in the NHL.
Eichel said he has been pleased with the culture and chemistry coach Ralph Krueger helped build last season and is hopeful that he is the right coach at the right time for the Sabres.
“He’s an incredible person and an incredible coach,” Eichel said. “He brings a special dynamic to the group in terms of being able to bring us in when need be and pump us up, I think he has a special way of connecting with the group and connecting with guys individually.
“I just think his leadership, his communication style, and the way that he relates to us is so important. And I think he did such a great job of it last year in terms of getting the culture to a certain standard and having us play to a certain standard and trying to develop an identity as a team.”
Now the team — and Eichel — need to go out and win.
And for inspiration, he doesn’t have to look very far. The Buffalo Bills are 12-3 this season in the NFL and could win their first playoff game since 1995. And two of Eichel’s former teammates, forward Ryan O’Reilly and defenseman Zach Bogosian, won the Cup in the past two seasons, with the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning, respectively.
“I think it’s definitely motivation for us,” Eichel said. “We want to be successful, we want to produce a winning team and be in the playoffs and be a competitive group in our league. Yeah, I think that there’s definitely some motivation there.
“I think we should use that as a way for us to try and be as good as we can and to achieve our goals of making the playoffs and trying to win a Stanley Cup.”
Because that’s what it’s about. For Eichel. For Adams. For Krueger. For the Sabres.
“That’s the ultimate goal of all of us as hockey players,” Eichel said. “When you achieve that, it’s a heck of a thing. As a hockey player, I grew up wanting to win the Stanley Cup. That goal hasn’t changed. That’s the ultimate thing. Every season you should be trying to do that. Anything less is a failure.”