In 2017/2018 Jack Eichel had 39 assists, 23 primary and 16 secondary. In fact, his first 14 assists of the season were primary assists. I'm not totally sure what that means, but I found that peculiar. Following a similar format to my How Jack Eichel Scored His First 48 Goals piece from August 2017 (that you should all read), I decided to review each of Eichel's 23 primary assists to decipher how he created offensive opportunities for his teammates.
After watching all of his primary assist plays, I decided to split them up into 6 different categories that I feel best describe the play at hand. Most are self explanatory but a few need some clarification, so to be sure, here are the brief descriptions of the assist categories.
To The Slot - These are passes where Eichel fed the puck to a player in the slot between the circles.
2v1 - As the name suggests these are 2v1 plays with a teammate.
Behind the Net - Eichel makes a pass from behind the goal line to a teammate out front. It could be argued that these could fall into the "In The Slot" category, but I felt they were unique and frequent enough to stand on their own.
Shot - These are assists where Eichel took a shot or intended to take a shot that ended up on a teammates stick and led to a goal. These are generally unintentional assists.
Thanks, Man - The Thanks, Man assist is a play were Eichel makes a standard pass that wasn't necessarily an attempt to set up a scoring chance, but led to a goal anyway, primarily because of what the teammate did to score, rather than what Eichel did to set up the goal.
Cross Ice - A play where Eichel makes a cross ice pass, usually through traffic, to a teammate with a wide open scoring attempt.
Here is how his primary assists were distributed in 2017/2018:
To The Slot
Jack Eichel's elite ability to read the defense and make a quick play is demonstrated best in his To The Slot assists. 3 of the 5 assists in the video below involve him making a quick one-touch pass exploiting the narrowest path available through the opposing defense.
The To The Slot assist to Pominville against the Blackhawks is a perfect snapshot of Eichel making space for himself around the pressuring forward and forcing the defense to account for him as a shooter, which opens up a passing lane to the slot off of Pominville's tape.
And finally his assist to O'Reilly involves another quick read, this time off of a blocked shot where he see's O'Reilly step back into the high slot and feeds him a pass for an easy one-timer opportunity.
The benefit of possessing a shot and hands like Jack Eichel is that in a 2v1 situation the defender has to account for his ability to either snipe from the circle or put a move on the goaltender, so they often stick closer to Eichel than they would against a normal puck carrier in the 2v1 situation. Given his confidence with the puck, Eichel is able to draw the defenders in close and get the pass off at the very last second to a wide open teammate who is in a spot the goaltender has little chance of getting over to. Just look at the small opening Eichel get's the puck through against San Jose.
*The goal against Arizona is a 2v0 but it's the same principal.
Behind The Net
We're only a few videos in and I think we're starting to see a trend. In his assists that come from below the goal line, Eichel tends to make a quick decision with the puck after either winning a puck battle or protecting the puck from an oncoming defender and making a slick pass by them to an open teammate in front.
These assists are somewhat murkier in that he wasn't attempting to make a pass but in his attempt to get a shot on goal a teammate was able to retrieve the puck quickly and score on a goaltender that was often out of position due to the initial shot attempt from Eichel.
The interesting thing about these assists is that even though the pass Eichel makes isn't necessarily a play that creates a scoring chance in and of itself, he get's a lot for these assists because he has the puck so much.
However it is worth noting the great plays Eichel made leading to a few of these assists like the Columbus goal where he made a behind the back pass to spring Kane free, and the play along the blue line against Florida to keep the puck in the zone before making the pass to O'Reilly.
So even though Eichel can say, "Thanks, Man" to his teammates for earning him an assist on what's otherwise a normal pass, he deserves some credit for always having the puck and making great plays that lead to a normal passes that give his teammates an opportunity to score goals.
May favorite goal from 2017/2018 was Eichel's cross ice pass to Pominville on opening night. I was so optimistic for the season, and that goal was so great from start to finish that despite the loss I was so thrilled for the upcoming season after that goal (Whoops).
Eichel's escape move at the top of the zone topped off by the incredible pass across the ice to a wide open Pominville next to the net. Everything about that play was perfect. Much like his other assists, the Cross Ice assist is a quick read of the defense followed by a perfect pass through the passing lane onto the tape of his teammate.
If Eichel could play a full 82 games and with legit top 6 wingers there's no reason he couldn't reach upwards of 60 assists in a season. My theory as to why his first 14 assists in 2017 were primary is that he simply had to do all of the work himself. If he didn't make the final pass before a goal, there probably wasn't going to be a goal scored.
Jack Eichel is about to enter what should be the prime of his career, and while he clearly has the ability to make lesser talent slightly better, the Sabres aren't going anywhere until they obtain defensemen that can break the puck out without Eichel having to do it himself, and wingers that can hang with Eichel and are offensive threats themselves, which would in turn force opposing defenseman to worry about other players instead of simply focussing on neutralizing Eichel and thus, Buffalo's entire offense.