His teammates sensed as soon as he arrived on Commonwealth Avenue last summer that Jack Eichel wouldn’t be sticking around for four years. And after he won the Hobey Baker Award as the country’s top college hockey player and was taken second overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the June draft, everyone figured that he was one-and-done.
“We all knew he was ready to go,” said Boston University captain Matt Grzelcyk, Eichel’s fellow first-team All-American. “He was a one-in-a-generation type of player.
“We obviously would have loved to have him back, but I think he would have been fighting human nature a little bit. It would have been tough on him. He just had too much to risk by coming back.”
So Eichel inked a three-year entry-level contract with Buffalo, which would have tossed in Niagara Falls as a bonus and which signed his senior classmates Evan Rodrigues and Cason Hohmann for good measure. Earlier, BU goaltender Matt O’Connor opted to bypass his senior season and sign with Ottawa.
Not that Agganis Arena will be a reconstruction zone this year. Nineteen veterans are back from a group that was less than nine minutes away from a sixth national title, plus medical redshirt goalie Sean Maguire and seven freshmen, including US junior world-teamers Jordan Greenway and Charlie McAvoy and Swedish import Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson (a.k.a. JFK).
“We feel like we’re going to pick up where we left off last year,” reckoned coach David Quinn, who since has signed a five-year contract.
Where the Terriers left off is where they historically have been accustomed to, with an armful of hardware that included their 30th Beanpot, ninth Hockey East regular-season title and eighth tournament crown, and 22d trip to the Frozen Four. Their 28-8-5 record on the heels of a 10-21-4 campaign represented the biggest one-year turnaround in program history.
“We wanted people to think that the year before was an aberration,” said Quinn. “If we had gone two games over .500, that wouldn’t have been good enough. This is BU. We’ve had high expectations since the program started.”
It wasn’t as if the Terriers had to claw their way out of a decade-long ditch. Their 2009 varsity had claimed the national championship and the 2013 team won 21 games. So a one-year stumble was a wakeup call.
“It almost made us that much more hungry because we never had really seen disappointment like that before,” said Grzelcyk. “We just wanted to get back to BU traditions and make the alumni proud.”
What helped was that the Terriers had a small but seasoned core of upperclassmen returning. What they needed was the arrival of a youthful cavalry — 10 freshmen led by Eichel, the most heralded prospect in the land.
“Probably in the history of college hockey nobody has come with the fanfare that Jack did,” observed Quinn. “It could have been a nightmare. It was anything but. He never thought he was bigger and better than anyone else.”
Eichel’s precocious presence and the quality of his classmates were a welcome addition to a squad that obviously needed reinforcements.
“The key was, our returning players embraced them,” said Quinn. “Because there can be some resentment and jealousy. Who’s this freshman think he is? There was none of that.”
It didn’t hurt that the new guys, four of whom skated regular turns on defense, didn’t play like freshmen.
“They played like sophomores, juniors, and seniors,” said Grzelcyk. “They didn’t look like freshmen on the ice.”
But until the newcomers had played a few games against their elders, there was no way to know how good BU would be. We could win a national championship or we could be .500, Quinn told his players before the season. It’s up to you.
The Terriers promptly won five of their first six games, including road victories at Providence and Boston College, and were ranked third in the country going into the Beanpot opener, where Harvard quickly put them against the wall.
“We were down, 3-1, and you get that feeling of, not again,” said Grzelcyk.
But BU rallied with two goals late in the second period and prevailed on Danny O’Regan’s strike in double overtime. Then they beat Northeastern for the trophy on Grzelcyk’s power-play wrister in overtime. After coming in fourth three times in four years in Boston’s bragging-rights tournament, getting their paws on the trophy again was an indisputable declaration that the Terriers were back.
“We’re all fighting over the same kids and we’re all fighting for supremacy locally,” said Quinn.
But merely being top dogs on the block wasn’t what BU hockey had been about. Winning the Hockey East pennant, dethroning UMass-Lowell for the tournament championship, then getting to the national title game were part of the mission statement as well.
Losing the crown to Providence in the Garden was an undeniable downer, but it has given the Terriers an extra measure of motivation for the upcoming campaign.
“We have to look at the season as unfinished business,” said Grzelcyk.
As much as the coaching staff and players might have hoped that Eichel would be back for a reprise, they knew last spring that it was unlikely.
“Jack loved BU, he loved college hockey, but he almost had no choice,” said Quinn. “You win the Hobey Baker, you have the season that he did as an individual, that we had as a team, it’s just human nature to say well, ‘I’ve been there, done that.’
“If he came back to BU, was he going to have the same passion and enthusiasm? I said, ‘Jack, if you don’t, don’t be embarrassed to tell me you don’t. The only question you have to ask yourself is, do you have enough respect for college hockey to come back and play it?’ ”
Nobody was surprised when Eichel, who’d tallied 71 points, concluded that it was time to move up to the next level. And at 18, he appears to have adapted quickly to older, bigger, faster, and stronger company.
“He’s a freak,” said Quinn. “He’s got elite physical skills, he’s got elite mental skills. There’s a reason why Jack had the year he had last year. There’s a reason why he’s been talked about for a long time as the best player. He’s got things to work on but he’s incredibly competitive, he’s incredibly coachable. He’s going to have a great year.”
His former teammates are positioned to do the same. While losing Eichel at one end of the ice and O’Connor at the other undoubtedly will sting, as will the departure of Rodrigues (61 points) and Hohmann (31), the Terriers still have a roomful of talent with the likes of seniors O’Regan (23-27—50) and Ahti Oksanen (25-13—38) and Grzelcyk (10-28—38) and an intact defensive corps with four NHL draftees.
The only question is whether the goaltender will be sophomore Connor LaCouvee, who was O’Connor’s backup, or Maguire, who shared the job with O’Connor for two years before missing last season with a concussion.
The newcomers are top-grade, as were last year’s. The difference is that Quinn won’t have to plug in as many of them as early as he did last time. And he won’t have to wonder how his guys will bounce back from a losing season.
“We had a swagger about us last year,” the coach said. “It wasn’t an arrogance. It was a swagger.”
The turnaround, both in achievement and attitude, has amped up expectations for a program that for decades has been among the nation’s elite with the trophies to back it up.
“You can’t lollygag,” said Grzelcyk. “Just because you come to BU doesn’t mean you’re going to win games, as we saw two years ago.”
The schedule is duly demanding, with outings against half a dozen NCAA qualifiers plus home dates with Denver, Michigan, and Wisconsin and a Thanksgiving weekend meeting with Cornell at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s a bear, but that’s the way to do it if you want to be good,” observed Quinn. “We’re not ducking anybody, that’s for sure.”
What brought Eichel and hundreds before him to BU was the challenge not only of the present but the past.
“They know the school they’re at, they know the history here, they know the expectations,” said Quinn. “And they want to meet them.”