In 2011-12, as a 15- and 16-year-old, Jack Eichel ripped up the Empire Junior Hockey League. The center from Chelmsford scored 39 goals and 47 assists for 86 points in 36 games for the Boston Junior Bruins.
Then he left.
Last season, Eichel played for the National Team Development Program’s Under-17 club, scoring 18 goals and 15 assists for coach Danton Cole’s team.
This season, Eichel will play for the U-18 team, expected to be one of its go-to players.
In the fall of 2014, provided he completes his high school acceleration (he will be a junior this September at Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High), Eichel will become a freshman at Boston University. The following summer, Eichel could be one of the first names announced at the NHL draft. Connor McDavid, a 16-year-old Canadian prodigy, might be the first overall pick.
So far, the 6-foot-2-inch, 190-pound Eichel is a player who has taken advantage of every resource available to a teenage American standout.
“Absolutely,” answered Cole when asked if he understands why NHL teams are already anticipating the 16-year-old’s professional ascension. “Everyone likes big, fast centermen who have a lot of skill. Absolutely. At the end of the day, what always separates those guys is the willingness to prepare and the willingness to prepare to win. The hard part is doing all the work — the time in the weight room, video room, applying practice to games. Jack has that will. He has that will to prepare. He’s a driven young man. It’s a dangerous combination to have that skill and drive. That’s what you look for in hockey players.”
Hockey always has come naturally for Eichel. The right-shot center can score and set up teammates. Eichel is a dynamic skater and is defensively aware. Eichel projects to be an NHL center in the Mike Modano mold — powerful, speedy, skilled. Eichel, who has been training with local strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle, is expecting to add height and weight before he tops out.
“I think of myself as a two-way center, maybe more on the offensive side of things,” Eichel said. “I like to take on defensemen one-on-one and try to make my teammates look good. I like to shoot the puck and score goals, as well. I like to challenge guys. I think I can play physical a little bit here and there. Probably my biggest asset is my skating.”
It’s not easy, however, being among the strongest, fastest, and most skilled players. Development stalls when a teenager isn’t challenged. Bad habits form. The mental side of the game doesn’t progress.
Consider the case of Tyler Seguin. The No. 2 overall pick of the 2010 draft was always the most gifted player at every level. As a 17- and 18-year-old, Seguin ripped up the OHL for 106 points.
In retrospect, Seguin’s physical gifts disguised his shortcomings. During his three years in Boston, Seguin’s hockey sense and toughness trailed his speed and shot. In youth hockey and junior, Seguin didn’t need to develop either attribute. The NHL is a punishing proving ground to learn those qualities. Now, Seguin is an ex-Bruin.
Eichel’s opportunities could prevent him from experiencing a similar outcome. As an eighth-grader, the 13-year-old debuted with the Junior Bruins. Eichel played against and alongside 20-year-olds. He recalled he didn’t score his first goal until November 2010.
“For me to be on the ice every day with kids who were stronger, faster, and shot the puck harder, it did nothing for me except make me better,” Eichel said.
After his freshman year at Chelmsford High, Eichel moved to Ann Arbor with the U-17s. Cole describes it as a challenging transition. The boys compete against older players in the USHL. The moves they bring to Ann Arbor don’t always work.
“I felt like I was getting hit every time I touched the puck,” Eichel said of his 2012-13 season. “Guys were always finishing their checks on me. It wasn’t a little bump. They hit you to put you through the glass. The physicality of the USHL was a lot higher than what I had played.”
It’s common knowledge that children learn languages more efficiently than adults. It is similar with hockey. The teenage years are critical for players to sponge up the sport’s intangibles through practice, video, and game situations.
“Always, earlier the better with the teenage mind and body,” Cole said. “We get them at a great stage. Their capacity for learning and growth is outstanding.”
Later this month, Eichel will return to Ann Arbor. He wants the team to be competitive against the USHL and college clubs on the U-18’s schedule. Eichel also wants to strike gold in the U-18 world championships next spring. In April, Eichel and Team USA lost to Canada in the gold medal game of the U-18 tournament.
Halifax drafted Eichel in the first round of the 2012 Quebec Major Junior draft. But the Mooseheads released his rights after Eichel informed them of his intentions to return to the NTDP in 2013 and play for BU in 2014. That did not stop Saint John from picking Eichel in the 10th round of the 2013 draft.
In the fall of 2014, Eichel’s Hockey East opponents will include men in their early and mid-20s. Eichel will not turn 18 until Oct. 28, 2014. For now, Eichel has other priorities. Last Sunday, he got his driver’s license. First things first.
Jets must pay to stay afloat
In a 13-day span, the Winnipeg Jets committed a little less than $100 million in salary to five players: Zach Bogosian, Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Paul Postma, and Eric Tangradi. All five had filed for arbitration, but none made it to arbitration. That the five contracts were negotiated prior to their hearings underscores how neither clubs nor players prefer arbitration. It can be a prickly time for both sides. Employers pick apart their players in search of a lower award. Arbitrators often weigh their rulings toward the players.
But the Jets had to prepare as if all five cases — the most for any team this summer — would proceed. According to general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, the club had booked flights to Toronto and hotel rooms in anticipation of cases taking place. The three major deals revolved around Wheeler, Little, and Bogosian. Ideally, Wheeler and Little are second-line players. But in Winnipeg, they make up two-thirds of the first line (Andrew Ladd is the No. 1 left wing).
Both Wheeler ($5.6 million annually) and Little ($4.7 million) were given substantial raises. It is the cost of doing business in Winnipeg. Player retention is more critical for the Jets than most clubs. They cannot compete for unrestricted free agents unless they are willing to overpay. Even if Wheeler and Little are not top-line, high-impact players, the Jets have to keep such players — and pay them well — to remain competitive. The biggest contract, and the most significant roll of the dice, goes toward Bogosian. The 23-year-old scored a seven-year, $36 million payday. The former Cushing Academy standout is coming off a 5-9—14 output in 33 games. Winnipeg is projecting that Bogosian’s production will accelerate as he enters his mid- and late 20s. Teams do not reward stay-at-home defensemen with such contracts.
In hindsight, the team that’s done things right with respect to two-way defensemen is Montreal. The Canadiens signed P.K. Subban to a two-year, $5.75 million bridge contract coming out of his entry-level deal. Subban responded by winning the Norris Trophy in 2013. The Canadiens have Subban under contract for one more Filene’s Basement season before they give him, most likely, an eight-year bonanza.
Bogosian could be a Subban comparable. Physically, the 6-foot-3-inch, 215-pound right-shot defenseman is off the NHL’s dream assembly line: fast, quick, rugged, mobile. Whether Bogosian’s hockey sense can fall in line with his physical gifts remains to be seen. The Jets are paying him as if it will.
Sharks may make changes
The Sharks have been built around veteran stars Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dan Boyle. But all three are entering the final seasons of their contracts. The Sharks have talked with the three graybeards about extensions, but it’s possible that not all three will re-up. Boyle is 37, Thornton is 34, and Marleau is 33. The Sharks have to allocate future money for Antti Niemi, a Vezina Trophy finalist who has two years remaining at a bargain annual hit of $3.8 million. With a possible changing of the guard in mind, the Sharks signed Joe Pavelski to a five-year, $30 million extension on Tuesday. It is the same deal the Sharks gave Logan Couture in June. Pavelski and Couture are ready to assume greater responsibilities if Thornton or Marleau go elsewhere.
Blake Wheeler’s six-year, $33.6 million extension underscores that former University of Minnesota teammate Phil Kessel will become very, very rich. Kessel is entering the last season of his five-year, $27 million deal, which he signed once the Maple Leafs acquired the right wing from the Bruins. If Kessel re-ups with Toronto, which is likely, he should receive an eight-year deal. If Kessel reaches the open market next July, he will score a seven-year contract. Either way, the 25-year-old Kessel could claim an $8 million annual payout. Kessel was a point-per-game player for the last two seasons. But it was Kessel’s postseason that opened eyes around the league. Kessel (4-2—6 against the Bruins) proved he’s a big-moment star. Maybe Kessel won’t land Corey Perry money ($8.625 million annually). But he’ll be close.
Ex-Bruin Hal Gill, bought out by the Predators July 4, remains without a job. The 38-year-old was under contract for one more season in Nashville, but was bought out, partly because defenseman Seth Jones fell to the Predators with the fourth overall pick in the draft. Jones will be in Nashville’s opening lineup, perhaps alongside Shea Weber. Gill, who lives in Lincoln in the offseason, could be an inexpensive one-year pickup for an Eastern Conference club seeking size and experience on the No. 3 pairing. The Capitals and Islanders are possible landing spots. Gill is not considering retirement, according to his agent, Peter Fish. Naturally, Gill would prefer a contract over a camp invitation.
Mats Zuccarello was scheduled for an arbitration hearing, the final one of the summer, on Wednesday. But a day earlier, Zuccarello signed a one-year, $1.15 million extension with the Rangers. Zuccarello’s signing closed the books on the arbitration season without any of the 21 cases proceeding to a hearing. The 21-for-21 run confirmed that arbitration is not an optimal route for clubs and players. Upon the close of arbitration season, teams could still exercise the second buyout window, which opens for 48 hours after the third day of a scheduled hearing. Five years ago, the Bruins used the second buyout window to cut ties with Glen Murray. Dennis Wideman had filed for arbitration, but came to an agreement before the hearing.
This will be a critical season for Nathan Gerbe. The former Boston College standout, bought out by the Sabres, signed a one-year, two-way contract for $550,000 with Carolina. Gerbe once projected to be a Brad Marchand-like skilled agitator. But after scoring 16 goals in 2010-11, Gerbe’s game fell off the last two seasons. If Gerbe doesn’t perform for coach Kirk Muller, the left wing could be out of the NHL . . . Starting this season, on-ice activities within two hours of warm-ups are not allowed, in pursuit of better ice conditions . . . Neither Jones (Nashville) nor Beau Bennett (Pittsburgh) will make Team USA’s final Olympic roster. But both will participate in the orientation camp later this month. Certainly helped both their causes that David Poile and Ray Shero, their NHL GMs, are among the American braintrust . . . Toronto’s Mark Fraser scored a $400,000 signing bonus as part of his one-year, $1.275 million contract, according to www.capgeek.com. Perhaps it’s hazard pay for taking a season-ending Milan Lucic shot to the forehead in the playoffs . . . Shawn Thornton will hold his fourth annual Putts & Punches for Parkinson’s golf tournament fundraiser Aug. 12 at Ferncroft Country Club in Middleton. The event will benefit the Shawn Thornton Foundation. Proceeds will go to the American Parkinson Disease Association and the Boston Bruins Foundation. For more information, visit www.thorntonfoundation.org . . . Bruins prospect Matt Grzelcyk is participating in this week’s national junior team evaluation camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. The BU defenseman was one of the final cuts for the 2013 World Junior Championship. For the first time, Team Canada is participating in the camp alongside regular visitors Sweden and Finland. NHL personnel are always present for the camp . . . Daniel Paille will be the honorary team captain for The Sports Museum’s entry in the Rodman Ride for Kids Sept. 28. To donate to support Team Sports Museum, contact Elizabeth Dowd at firstname.lastname@example.org . . . This will be the second straight season without an All-Star Game. Last year’s event in Columbus was whacked because of the lockout. There is no All-Star Game this season because of the Olympics . . . Red Sox owner John Henry has struck a deal to purchase the Globe. I will reluctantly continue my daily front-of-mirror ritual for encounters with the boss: “Why yes, Mr. Henry, I absolutely agree that baseball players are tougher than hockey players.” The human tongue, whether through biting or twisting, can stand only so much abuse.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.