Why the post-Eichel Sabres are ready for the NHL’s main stage
NHL 

    Kristen Shilton is a national NHL reporter for ESPN.

Jack Eichel’s latest return to Buffalo is about more than just Jack Eichel.

The Sabres’ former captain is a headline. What’s happening in Buffalo this season goes beyond the surface.

When the league-leading Vegas Golden Knights drop in to duel on Thursday, it will be the second time Eichel has faced his old team since their messy divorce was finalized in November 2021. That trade of the club’s second overall pick in 2015 signaled the start of its next — and hopefully best — chapter, a slow-but-steady build back to being a contender.

Executing that vision has been Buffalo’s mission this season through a respectable 7-6-0 start. It’s what makes Thursday night important for the Sabres — not as a game against Eichel, but a game of genuine significance for them.

“I think we embrace it. Like, let’s embrace this game,” Buffalo captain Kyle Okposo said. “It’s a big game, and we haven’t been in big games in the last 10 years because we haven’t been in the playoffs. Let’s try and build something to where we can play in these games and have them mean something and rise to the occasion like the few times we did last year. Let’s continue that. I don’t think there’s any more pressure, but let’s rise to the challenge.”

Buffalo was in a different place when that first Eichel circus made landfall on March 10. The Sabres ranked in the bottom five of the standings at 19-32-8 while Vegas had a middle-of-the-pack 32-23-4 record. Still, the hometown team took care of business in a 3-1 victory which included Eichel being resoundingly booed by Sabres’ faithful — and that was just during his tribute video.

Whether it was the poor reception or lousy result, Eichel didn’t hold back in postgame comments fans are bound to remember come Thursday night.

“It was the loudest I’ve heard this place ever,” Eichel opined last spring. “Really. It only took seven years and me leaving for them to get into the game.”

And those boo birds?

“They must just [have been] booing because they wish I was still here.”

Eichel is long gone from Buffalo after a turbulent six-year relationship and a bitter split. The Sabres had high hopes when they selected him, envisioning a surefire superstar center to lead the franchise’s rejuvenation. That never happened. During Eichel’s tenure — including three seasons as captain — the Sabres failed to finish above .500, let alone make a postseason appearance.

The lack of on-ice results was frustrating enough. Both sides’ breaking point was more personal. It stemmed from Eichel’s neck injury in early 2021; he wanted to repair the disc issue with an artificial replacement surgery never performed before on an NHL player. Buffalo wouldn’t allow that, and Eichel wouldn’t budge, so Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams stripped Eichel of the captaincy in September 2021 and then traded him to the Golden Knights in exchange for a package that included Alex Tuch and Peyton Krebs.

Vegas immediately gave Eichel the green light to have his procedure. Following a long rehab, Eichel debuted with the Golden Knights in February. A month later, he was leaving Buffalo with zero points and a minus-one rating against his old club.

Eichel’s successful start to this season — six goals and 15 points in 14 games — tracks with how good the Golden Knights have been, producing their current eight-game win streak and rising to the top of the NHL standings at 11-2-0. His hot hand could add extra spice to the impending matchup.

Buffalo has been streaking in the opposite direction, dropping three in a row after going 7-3-0 out of the gate. It’s another reason why Thursday carries so much weight. The Sabres remember how Eichel was greeted last time; that passion plays into their hands. But it’s going head-to-head with the NHL’s best that could be the ultimate slump buster.

“Everybody knows what happened last year,” Okposo said. “We’re just going to play it by ear and try to feed off the crowd. We know that people are obviously excited for this game. And we’re excited to get to our game and show that we can compete and that we can play with some of the top teams in the league. Make no mistake about it, that’s what these guys are and they’re playing extremely well and they’re the No. 1 team in the league. So we’ve got a big test and hopefully use that energy from the crowd.”

DON GRANATO COULD feel the trap coming.

He didn’t like how the Sabres practiced on Monday after losing games on the road to Carolina and Tampa Bay. Buffalo had Arizona in town Tuesday before its matchups against Vegas and Boston. It would be easy, Granato knew, to overlook the Coyotes. And the Sabres did, losing 4-1 to create a season-long three-game spiral.

Which, conveniently, leads directly into facing the Pacific and Atlantic Division leaders back-to-back.

“I didn’t like it,” Granato said of the Arizona game’s place in the schedule. “Now, did me not liking it, did I carry any negative energy into that? That’s something for me to look at too. You can go back after that game and you can probably say, ‘I told you so,’ because it played out the way it played out. That is one that we wish we would have had a better performance in.”

Hard lessons are part of the learning process. So is creating — and then sticking to — an identity. Granato’s focus is downloading that into his players, so it becomes second nature regardless of whether their opponent is rising or reeling.

Vegas is unquestionably in the former category. Eichel has been a major contributor in making it so. Granato, much like Okposo, thinks those are positive things for the Sabres. It gives Buffalo a jolt to shake off some current stagnation.

“We don’t know what the environment will be [on Thursday], but it could be pretty energized,” Granato said. “That’s great. That’s exciting. It’s good for our guys. You have to acknowledge that you are two teams who made a big trade with really good hockey players going both ways. Anybody that plays against their old team always wants to do well. It breaks the monotony of an [82-game season]. But the outcome is going to be decided by who can get to their game and play it. I believe our guys are fully committed and focused to that. I think the other side of it is just added fun and flavor.”

The Eichel trade did allow for one true homecoming, and that was Tuch’s. The player from central New York grew up a Sabres fan. This season he’s tracking towards a potential career year already, with seven goals and 11 points in 13 games. Meanwhile, the 21-year-old Krebs is coming along slowly with two assists in 11 games. It’s all part of the process.

Granato didn’t know what to expect from either Tuch or Krebs when Eichel was traded. Looking back, he has no complaints about how that trade panned out, or what they’ve added since.

“I’m real happy with where they are,” Granato said. “I can’t recollect my expectations from when we first got them, but I feel that they’ve contributed a lot to our team and to the direction we’re going and they’re both players that are going to grow with our group that’s there.”

TAGE THOMPSON DOESN’T care who’s across the ice.

Eichel or no Eichel. There’s one job to do.

“I try not to focus on all that [hysteria],” he said. “Our thing is just to focus on the game, what we’ve got to do to win. Outside noise is just outside noise. It’s a good challenge, and I think we’re ready for it.”

Eric Comrie agrees. The Sabres’ netminder could feel it during Wednesday’s practice. Buffalo’s swagger was making an appearance. Comrie was pleased to welcome it back.

“You start to see the confidence building,” he said. “And the morale gets coming back a little bit, everyone starts getting more positive, and that’s when things start clicking again. It’s always that, at first, your attitude starts to dip and then all of a sudden, your play starts to dip and then all of a sudden, your attitude starts coming back and your play starts coming back. So I think it’s a big correlation between positivity and positive things happening on the ice.”

All Buffalo has to do now is translate that against Vegas. The Sabres have dealt with a few injures of late, including to Rasmus Dahlin (who missed the Tampa Bay game with an upper-body ailment), Mattias Samuelsson (lower-body) and Henri Jokiharju (facial fracture). This recent stretch has given Buffalo its first taste of adversity this season. It won’t be the last.

But the Sabres haven’t forgotten their identity and don’t plan to either, regardless of which former friends are now waiting in the wings.

“I think we’ve got a really good team,” Thompson said. “I think everyone here believes that too. So I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone in this room that we were going to come out hot. We’re going through a little bit of a slump right now, but we’ve got a good opportunity [against Vegas] to get back in the win column, so we’ve just got to turn the page and move forward.”

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