Game On / To compete again

Nicholas Hebert (CAN) and Jack Eichel (USA) fight for the puck as Canada plays the USA in the men's IIHL World Junior Championship hockey tournament on January 15, 2012 in Innsbruck, Austria. Incidently, this December, the 2018 World Junior Championship is slated to be hosted by Buffalo with games at KeyBank Center and HarborCenter. Also, for the first time ever, an outdoor tournament game will be played at New Era Field on New Year's Eve.


"We’re going to be less competitive."


It’s a line made famous in Buffalo sports nearly a decade ago, but no one really knew how true it would be when Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said it on July 2, 2007.


After a brief but remarkable stretch of postseason success, Buffalo sports fans were mourning the loss of Sabres co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury to free agency. Regier and Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn held a tense thirty-minute press conference to answer questions and quell fears that the sky was falling. They were doing fine, more or less, until Regier cut Quinn off to say flat-out that the team won’t be as good without its two captains.


Regier was right about being less competitive. He was wrong about basically everything else that followed. 


Buffalo sports are bad. There’s no getting around it. The Bills haven’t made the playoffs since I was in elementary school. The Sabres haven’t been good since Briere and Drury wore slugs on their sweaters. The marketing concept "One Buffalo" isn’t about community spirit or civic pride. The tie that binds the Bills and the Sabres together is failure. Both teams have been mediocre-to-lousy for the better part of a decade. 


Each year, the Bills playoff hopes go from "In the Hunt" to hunted sometime in mid-December. It’s so predictable at this point that most fans are only disappointed in themselves for getting swept up in hoping. 


And sure, I’ll admit, there was a brief period where the Sabres were genuinely fun this decade. They won the Northeast Division in 2010 because Ryan Miller had the best year of his life, and he dragged the US Olympic Team and the Sabres along with him. But the next season was mostly smoke and mirrors—a mediocre squad caught up in the enthusiasm that came when Terry Pegula bought the team. That enthusiasm ended after seven playoff games against Philadelphia.


The next five seasons were the least competitive in franchise history. And some of it was intentional. The people in charge had had enough mediocrity and decided to go with bad. On purpose. It was controversial and hard to watch, but it worked. The Sabres now have a group of young players like Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel only because the team was bad enough to draft them both second overall.


There is no athlete in Buffalo sports quite like Jack Eichel. That’s why it was disappointing when the center sprained his ankle in practice just before the 2016-17 season began. After an encouraging rookie year, he missed the first twenty-one games of his sophomore campaign. Without him, the Sabres declined. Injuries mounted, and the team was last in the NHL in goals per game. It all felt and looked very familiar, except this time it wasn’t on purpose.


Eichel played his first game of the year on November 29 in Ottawa. Six minutes into the game, he set up a Kyle Okposo goal on a cross-ice pass that cut through the Senators’ defensive box. Three minutes later, he scored a goal no one else on the team can—a wicked one-timer along the left half wall on the power play. The twenty-year-old is the only Sabre who has a release on his shot quick enough to take that pass and rifle it past both a defenseman and the goaltender. 


The impact of a player like Jack Eichel on a hockey team is incalculable. Goals are a good place to start, sure, but the subtle things he can do add up to more than the sum of his statistics. So often we forget the small skills that make sports so interesting, and the reasons why those who do those things are so brilliant.


Eichel is great because he picks up a loose puck in the corner and waits for a defender to engage him before making a pass. He waits, because he knows he’s stronger on the puck than the defender, and, by drawing him in, a teammate is now free to take a pass Eichel can still make under duress. 


His ability to make those simple passes that hit players leaving the defensive zone in stride is the first step to breaking the neutral zone traps that litter today’s game and keep mediocre teams in control and scoring low. In year two of his NHL career, Eichel’s passing still feels underrated—so few players in the league can find space to hit teammates with tape-to-tape passes.


Most important, a player like Jack Eichel gets fans in Buffalo excited about hockey again. Sabres home crowds have been lackluster for years, and there isn’t some complex algorithm needed to explain why. The teams were bad. The hockey was boring. People will get loud about hockey in Buffalo again when there’s something to get excited about.


When Eichel returned to Buffalo, so did the cheers. He scored the game-tying and game-winning goals late in the third period of his first home game of the season against the Rangers on December 1. The KeyBank Center crowd was full of thousands of Rangers fans who no doubt bought cheap tickets in the lackluster secondary market because of Buffalo’s poor start. But the roar when Eichel banked in the game-winner with 5:32 to play in the third was the loudest the building has heard in years.


The Buffalo Sabres are still not very competitive. They need a few better defenseman, and their young players need time to figure out how to win. The Bills are still a mediocre mess. That doesn’t look like it will be fixed anytime soon. Neither team is particularly good, but, with Jack Eichel, the Sabres look like they can finally get and stay competitive for a long time. That’s why fans are excited, and that’s why general manager Tim Murray will do everything in his power to make sure he doesn’t walk away on July 1. 


Right now, it’s clear that Jack Eichel is Buffalo’s best shot at not hating ourselves for having hope.


No pressure, kid.         


Ryan Nagelhout is a writer and editor of children’s books as well as a freelance sportswriter.

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