With the NHL season heading into its last quarter, and teams jockeying for position – both in the playoff hunt and in draft lottery – the conversation regarding player awards hasn’t exactly hit its peak. Several players are having dominant seasons – Erik Karlsson, for example, is a veritable lock for the Norris Trophy, as the league’s best defenseman.
The race for the Calder Trophy, which is awarded to, “the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the National Hockey League,” has yet to be decided. Several candidates have demonstrated that they deserve the award; Artemi Panarin leads all rookies in goals, and of course, Connor McDavid deserves to be a part of the conversation, despite missing nearly half of the season with a shoulder injury. Dylan Larkin has also made quite a name for himself, especially after his record-breaking performance at the NHL All-Star Game’s skills competition.
Lurking in the shadows of these great rookies is the NHL’s second overall pick in the 2015 Entry Draft, Jack Eichel. Though Sabres general manager Tim Murray was visibly disappointed to have lost the draft lottery to Edmonton, thus losing out on McDavid, there is a distinct possibility that in doing so, the Sabres chose the 2016 Calder Trophy winner when they drafted Eichel.Throughout the season, Eichel has proven to be one of the most complete players on a struggling Buffalo team. He is one of five Buffalo Sabres to have laced up the skates for every game his team has played – only one other rookie can say the same. More impressive, though, is Eichel’s time on ice stats – he averages 18:43 minutes per game. That is third on his team for forwards, and it is the most for any rookie forward. Not only is Eichel playing in every game, he’s playing nearly 1/3 of every game, which is impressive for a nineteen year old player in his first NHL season.
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma gives Eichel a lot of credit for it. He recently told NHL.com, “Doing it night in and night out is a challenge. Traveling and getting in at 5 in the morning is a challenge. It’s a challenge for everybody, but a challenge for young guys that may not be accustomed to play this many games in this rapid succession.”
Eichel’s season has not been without its slumps. The young forward went five games in December without recording a point, and it seemed as though his hot start had begun to cool off. Since that time, though, Eichel has scored 24 points in 25 games. This streak extends through a tumultuous time for Buffalo, in which injuries have caused Eichel’s linemates to change on an almost nightly basis. Because of the near-constant shuffling, Eichel hasn’t had the opportunity to develop solid chemistry with a set line, but he has made a connection with nearly every player he’s lined up with. His 21 assists are good for third among rookies, and third on his team, as well – Eichel is the rising tide that lifts the ships of his linemates.
Recently, Girgensons flanked Eichel, and the pair had four points in two games. Since Girgensons went on IR, it’s been Marcus Foligno that sidled up to Eichel, and Foligno has three goals and an assist in Buffalo’s last two games, snapping a lengthy scoring drought.
Third in assists, but second in points, it is often easy to forget that Eichel is also a gifted goal-scorer. He’s got 17 goals on the season, which is second-most among rookies. Some of his goals are snipes. Some goals come from hard work down low.
Many of his goals, though, are like the one below, coming when he collects the puck in his own zone, looks up-ice, and sees a path to the net where no one else does. Even if there is an obstacle, Eichel finds a way to go around, or sometimes through. He’s got the hands to make a move, but just as often, Eichel will cut in and fight off a stick-check with his body, separating the defender from the lane. This move – fending off a defenseman with one arm while stick-handling with the other – is Eichel’s signature. It is an indelible mark he leaves on bigger, stronger, more experienced players and for that alone, he deserves Calder consideration.
This season’s rookie class is fantastic, for certain. Several young players are having meaningful and impactful seasons for their team, and Eichel is definitely among them. As the Sabres work through their last 25 games of the season, the world will be watching Eichel continue to play his unique game – smart, strong, two-way play. He is arguably the most complete player of the other rookies in Calder contention, and it will be interesting to see if the writers will vote with their minds instead of their hearts – or the hype, and will award the trophy to its most deserving candidate.