Sabres getting younger and faster to keep up with changing game

By Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell

Saturday’s Sabres matinee at Key Bank Center had a different feel to it.

The arena has been notably quiet this season, even by the already low noise standards displayed by the oft moribund Sabres fans, where noise and energy come forth in infrequent spurts. But this time, the cheers for the intros were palpable, fans were into the game, well, as best they could as the team went to sleep for most of the first half of the contest. But what was different?

Jack Eichel was back.

Buffalo’s future franchise player, who missed 21 games due to an opening day injury sustained during practice, made his mark quickly on his return, and was dominant last week scoring the tying and winning goals against the New York Rangers.

More importantly, the entire team seemed to elevate their level of play. Can one player make a difference? It’s only a couple games since Eichel’s return but that answer seems to be a definite yes.

“It just kind of shows what kind of player he can be and what kind of player he is,” said Coach Dan Bylsma on Eichel. “He brings so much to our team in terms of his speed and attack. It’s carried over to other players and they’re just feeding off the energy that Jack’s bringing.”

Eichel is just one of the new wave of players across the spectrum of the NHL who are making a difference and are sparking renewed interest in the league.

In Toronto, team president Brendan Shanahan has put the franchise into complete teardown and rebuild mode, dispatching veterans and bringing in young stars such as Auston Mathews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. The Leafs made headlines around the globe when Mathews scored four goals on his opening night debut. Comparisons are already being made between the Leafs and the MLB Chicago Cubs, another staid, old franchise which finally enjoyed success after decades of futility.

There are other trends shaping the new NHL. Players aren’t only getting younger, they’re getting smaller and more nimble. Fighting is also down precipitously. The era of the “enforcer” or “goon” may be coming to an end, as coaches instead use that valuable roster spot to place another offensive weapon in the lineup.

Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid has already been named their team captain, the youngest player in league history to ever be bestowed such an honor. After years of futility and a boatload of high draft choices and prospects filling out their roster, the Oilers are finally getting their due on the ice.

In Winnipeg, second overall draft pick Patrik Laine is making an immediate impact on the Jets. He has amassed 16 goals and is the team’s leading scorer.  Laine is 18 years old.

The Arizona Coyotes currently sit close to the bottom of the western conference standings, but their stable of prospects is impressive… Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Jacob Chychrun, Christian Dvorak and Dylan Strome are the core of what should be an exciting roster moving forward.

There are two more subtle trends that may be driving this youth movement and change of play. Remember first, that the current crop of players were beginning their playing days just as the league was coming out of the 2004-2005 lockout and lost season. The new style of play that emerged from that break put more of a focus on speed and skill. New scoring gimmicks such as the elimination of the red line offsides and the shootout just added to the glitz. Youngsters and the programs they developed in adapted to that, and ten years later, this is the style of play that is shaping the new NHL.

Second, general managers may be tilting the playing field towards younger players for one big reason – to save money. The league’s collective bargaining agreement pretty much sets fixed salaries for the first three years of a player’s career. And that means that teams can have the services of a McDavid, Eichel or Mathews for the “bargain” price of under a million dollars a season before the big bucks kick in. Those developmental contracts then free money to pay the established superstars the huge contracts to keep their services, and out of moving elsewhere in free agency.

Eichel has garnered most of the attention by the fans in the stands, both at the games and at the morning skates, and has also attracted the most reporters in the locker room media scrums. For what it’s worth, Eichel is just happy to be back skating and playing, and contributing to the team’s new energy and success. “It’s nice,” said Eichel when asked about his immediate scoring prowess on his return. “But I think it’s something you want to stay consistent. You’re not going to score every night but if you’re able to find a way to contribute to this team and help us win games and get two points that’s our biggest goal. I just want to continue that.”