NHL Players to Watch: Sabres Eichel has plenty to prove
By JOHN WAWROW, AP Hockey Writer
Sabres center Jack Eichel isn’t mincing words when assessing his first two NHL seasons.
“Actually, I think I’ve proven nothing,” the 20-year-old face of the franchise said before bluntly outlining his lack of accomplishments.
“If you look at what I’ve done, it hasn’t been a whole lot,” Eichel said. “Two mediocre seasons on a losing team.”
The player selected No. 2 in the 2015 draft behind Connor McDavid might be overstating his case given he produced at nearly a point-a-game pace last year despite missing 21 games with a sprained left ankle. And yet, the comments reflect Eichel’s level of motivation to establish himself as one of the league’s top young players.
The competitor in Eichel was miffed watching rookie Auston Matthews help the cross-border rival Toronto Maple Leafs vault ahead of Buffalo in the standings and clinch a playoff berth.
Then there’s Eichel’s contract status , entering the final year of his rookie deal. While he and the Sabres are still negotiating an extension, McDavid’s was completed in July, when he signed an eight-year, $100 contract.
An eight-year contract is on the table for Eichel, though the two sides are divided on a dollar amount. That makes Eichel an intriguing player to follow, given his production will help determine his value.
“I look at myself to be one of the leaders on this team,” Eichel said. “I think if I do that, guys will follow and we’ll be successful.”
A number of other players to watch in 2017-18:
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights.
The three-time Stanley Cup-winner has departed the Penguins to become the face of Golden Knights after being selected in the NHL expansion draft in June.
The 32-year-old Fleury became expendable in Pittsburgh following the emergence of Matt Murray. Fleury will be the last line of defense on a patchwork Golden Knights team that includes forwards James Neal and Vadim Shipachyov, who made the jump from playing in Russia, and defenseman Shea Theodore.
Selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft, Fleury has a 375-216-68 record, putting him 25 wins short of becoming just the 13th player to reach 400.
Forward Patrick Marleau, Toronto Maple Leafs.
The 38-year-old Marleau left behind Joe Thornton and 19 seasons in San Jose to join the youth-laden, Mike Babcock-coached Leafs, who reached the playoffs for just the second time in 12 seasons last year.
Marleau’s experience and leadership are valuable to a team that had seven rookies play at least 50 games last season, including Matthews, the NHL’s rookie of the year. Marleau can still score after finishing with 27 goals and 19 assists last season — the 14th time he’s topped 20 goals.
Forward Jonathan Drouin, Montreal Canadiens.
The Habs need offense, and they’re counting on the 22-year-old French-Canadian for help after acquiring Drouin in a trade with Tampa Bay. The third player selected in the 2013 draft, Drouin has 29 goals and 66 assists for 95 points in 164 career games with the Lightning.
Drouin’s career-best 21 goals and 53 points last season both would have ranked third on the Canadiens.
Center Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils.
The No. 1 draft pick will be given every opportunity to make the young and rebuilding Devils, who also acquired forward Marcus Johansson in a trade with Washington. The Swiss-born Hischier is a play-making center who was the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s rookie of the year last season.
The Devils took somewhat of a gamble in selecting Hischier ahead of NHL Central Scouting’s top-ranked prospect Nolan Patrick, who was drafted second by Philadelphia.
Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, New York Rangers.
The top prize in free agency went to the Blueshirts in adding an established seven-year veteran to a revamped blue-line already featuring 28-year-old captain Sean McDonagh and 30-year-old Marc Staal. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist is 35.
Shattenkirk had a career-best 56 points (13 goals, 43 assists) split between St. Louis and Washington last year. He struggled in both ends during the playoffs, in which Washington was eliminated by Pittsburgh in the second round.
Goalie Scott Darling, Carolina Hurricanes.
If the Hurricanes are going to deliver on being pegged the preseason chic pick surprise playoff contenders, the 6-foot-6 Darling might have to play a key role. Carolina acquired the former Blackhawks backup in a trade in April, putting him in a position to usurp long-time starter Cam Ward for the No. 1 job.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos returns after tearing a ligament in his right knee in November. … The John Tavares contract watch is on, with the New York Islanders captain entering the final year of his six-year deal. … Forward Artemi Panarin, the NHL’s 2015 rookie of the year, is now in Columbus after being traded by the Blackhawks. … Brandon Saad, acquired in the Panarin trade, and free-agent addition Patrick Sharp are both back in Chicago after a first-round playoff sweep against Nashville led to the Blackhawks shuffling their roster. … The Dallas Stars hope to have rectified their goaltending issues with the addition of Ben Bishop in a trade with Los Angeles. … Will someone finally call 45-year-old free agent forward Jaromir Jagr ?
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