(^^ Audio version above because listening to things is fun and reading makes your brain to more stuff ^^)
It seems that national media is coming down pretty hard on Jack Eichel right now. They defend their dissenting opinion based mainly on one stat – scoring – and it’s true, Eichel is not scoring as prolifically as his draft race counterpart Connor McDavid. This comparison, though, seems to be the kind of spin we’ve come to know and love from the over-polarized political ‘news’. There is more to hockey than scoring, and the hockey world – especially those who are considered experts – knows it. The most important aspect of the game is winning. At the time this is published, both Buffalo and Edmonton have five wins, with the Sabres carrying a game in hand. McDavid is scoring on a nearly point-per-game pace, but it appears that his scoring is not helping the team in the win column.
Recently, Andrew Berkshire wrote an interesting piece for Sportsnet.ca, and states, “About an eighth of the way into the season, point production does tell us a bit about how a player is performing, but not a lot. Both McDavid and [Arizona forward Max] Domi are clicking at point per game paces so far, while Eichel is stuck at just four goals and zero assists. That doesn’t mean Eichel has been less valuable to his team though.” Check out the article here. There are some very telling charts that offer a more complete story of the player’s contribution to their team in the defensive zone. Of these, the most important to my point is ‘Defensive Zone Loose Puck Recoveries.’ The sample size is small, of course; none of the players have played 15 games yet, but the Eichel stands out as superior to his rookie class in this seemingly important regard. Furthermore, once Eichel obtains the loose puck, he is more proficient than McDavid or Domi with that puck in the neutral zone. The first chart in the article shows ‘Possession Driving Plays.” These metrics include ‘Controlled Zone Exits,’ ‘Controlled Zone Entries,’ and ‘Neutral Zone Passes.’ In each of these categories, Eichel outpaces McDavid and Domi – even if the margin is slim, the margin still exists.
One of the most telling plays of the season for Eichel so far was a play early in the season against Columbus. Buffalo lost the puck in the offensive zone, and Blue Jackets’ center Boone Jenner jumped on the loose puck, heading up-ice. Eichel came from behind Jenner, taking the body and shouldered Jenner off of the puck. Eichel then gained possession of the puck, turned, took two strides, and fired the puck top shelf for the goal. The play took over twitter, and I’m sure everyone has seen it at least 15 times because it was unbelievable. When was the last time a Buffalo player had made such a complete play? Without spending too much time on it, I honestly can’t call one to mind.
Which brings me to my next point – isn’t Eichel what Buffalo needed? Of course, Eichel is a skilled player, and he has a scoring touch that most hockey players are jealous of, but Eichel’s most important characteristic is his work ethic. His feet don’t stop moving. He’s not too shy to take a body in the corner. He’ll win more 50/50 plays than he loses. His tenacity, dependability, and vision – that’s what Buffalo needed. And it shows. Eichel leads rookie forwards in time on ice and shifts per game played. Another stat from Berkshire’s article is time of possession. Eichel leads Domi and McDavid in defensive zone, neutral zone, and perhaps most surprisingly, offensive zone possession. Buffalo has the fewest shots against so far this season, and puck possession is a key part of keeping these numbers low.
The Buffalo Sabres were once the hardest working team in hockey. They weren’t identified by a single player with a ridiculous scoring touch. They had a complete team of smart, hardworking players, and they won a lot of games that way. It seems that Murray is bringing us back to those days – while we have an incredibly talented roster, boasting the likes of Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly, but as much skill as these men have, they are physical, puck possession players. Jack Eichel should be proud to join their ranks. The league can have their one-dimensional scorers. Buffalo is happy to have a hard working team once again.