By JOHN WAWROW, AP Hockey Writer
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Motivated to be better, Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel called his first two NHL seasons as being “mediocre” upon arriving at training camp last month.
There’s nothing substandard about the eight-year, $80-million contract extension the 20-year-old center agreed to on Tuesday.
The deal was reached two days before the Sabres open the season hosting Montreal. And it ended months of negotiations while coming after talks had stalled over the past six weeks.
The contract, which won’t kick in until next season, will make Eichel the highest-paid player in franchise history.
In averaging $10 million per season, Eichel ties Los Angeles Kings star Anze Kopitar on the NHL list of annual average salaries, according to Spotrac.com. Overall, the contract’s total value is tied for 10th with Kopitar on the NHL list.
Eichel was entering the final year of his three-year entry level contract and only eligible to become a restricted free agent next summer.
Eichel’s agent, Peter Fish, credited his client for prompting the deal to be completed after previously saying he would be open to playing out the season without an extension.
“We just happened to have a conversation today, going back and forth on the numbers, and Jack was really like, ‘Let’s get this done,'” Fish told The Associated Press by phone. “Jack felt getting a deal done now was the right thing to do for both sides.”
Without revealing how far apart the two sides were, Fish said Eichel agreed to meet the Sabres’ offer in order to not handcuff the team’s payroll structure under the NHL salary cap.
“He didn’t want to necessarily milk the Sabres for every last dollar. He wanted to make sure that there’s enough money to go around to get more players and help win a Cup,” Fish said. “What was important to him was winning in Buffalo and having enough supporting cast to be able to do it. And I commend him on that.”
Sabres general manager Jason Botterill wasn’t available for comment. The team announced the contract on its Twitter account before issuing a press release.
Eichel was the second player selected in the 2015 draft, one spot behind Edmonton’s Connor McDavid. The Oilers’ captain signed an eight-year, $100 million contract extension in July, making him the NHL’s top-paid player on a per-season basis.
Eichel’s contract extension continues a recent trend of players 23 and younger signing lucrative contacts . Aside from McDavid, Edmonton also signed 21-year-old forward Leon Draisaitl to an eight-year, $68 million contract last summer.
The attention will now turn to members of the 2016 draft class such as Toronto’s Auston Matthews, the NHL’s rookie of the year last season, and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine.
Eichel led the Sabres with 24 goals as a rookie and had a team-best 57 points last year despite missing the first 21 games with a sprained left ankle.
A fraction of a point separated him from collecting a $2 million performance bonus by just missing out on finishing among the NHL’s top 10 in points per game production last year. Eichel finished 11th by averaging 0.934 points per game, and edged out by Draisaitl who finished 10th by averaging 0.939 points per game with 77 points in 82 games.
Eichel was motivated upon arriving at training camp last month, saying he was focused on being a leader both on and off the ice. He was also blunt in assessing his first two seasons.
“Actually, I think I’ve proven nothing,” he said.
“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 Massachusetts-born Eichel played just one season at Boston University, where he became just the second freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s MVP.
Signing Eichel to an extension was the team’s top priority in locking up the franchise’s cornerstone player through 2025-26.
Botterill was hired in May, and replaced Tim Murray, who was fired along with coach Dan Bylsma, after the Sabres missed the playoffs to extend the franchise’s longest postseason drought to six years. The Sabres under Murray and Bylsma were faulted for lacking accountability and structure following an under-performing season in which Buffalo finished 15th in the Eastern Conference and 26th overall.
That was not the expectation for a team that was supposed to be on an upward trajectory since bottoming out by finishing last in the NHL in both 2013-14 and 2014-15.
Adding Eichel’s salary poses a salary-cap challenge for the Sabres next summer. They already had four players whose contracts represent a salary-cap hit of at least $5.4 million for the 2018-19 season, including Jason Pominville, who was acquired in a trade with Minnesota in June.
The NHL’s salary cap has barely budged in going up from $69 million in 2014-15 to $75 million this season.
For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey
(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)