January 21, 2012

From NEHJ: Young and restless

By Bill Keefe

For a ninth-grader who turned 15 in October, it hasn’t taken long for Jack Eichel to make his mark in hockey circles. 

Jack Eichel (Chelmsford, Mass.) is averaging more than two points a game this season.

Jack Eichel (Chelmsford, Mass.) is averaging more than two points a game this season. (Photo courtesy of Boston Junior Bruins)

Last year, as the youngest player on the team, the center from Chelmsford, Mass., notched nearly a point a game in helping the Empire League Boston Junior Bruins win a national championship.

So far this year, Eichel is averaging nearly 2.3 points per game as the captain for the Empire Bruins, earning him some games with the Eastern Junior Hockey League Bruins.

In his first game playing up, the Eastern Junior Bruins were pitted against the other division leader, the South Shore Kings. On a sheet filled with 18- to 20-year-olds and several Division-1 bound players, scouts said Eichel was the best player on the ice.

Over the summer, his strong performance at the USA Hockey Select 15 Development Camp earned him a spot with some of the nation’s best 1996-born players on the Under-16 Select Team that will participate in the inaugural Winter Youth Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, Jan. 13-22.

“He is one of the most talented kids in that birth year,” said Tim Taylor (Guilford, Conn.), the National Junior Team director of player personnel. “He is a very good candidate for the National Team Development Program. He has a good combination of skills and hockey sense and he has a very good body for the game.”

Standing at 6-foot-1, Eichel uses his reach to create space. As he fills out, he will be able to create even more space to the dread of opponents, who already have to deal with his tremendous skating, puck and shooting skills.

“He’s a real special player with tons of talent,” said Empire Junior Bruins coach Chris Masters (Lexington, Mass.), who has guided scores of Div. 1 players and NHL players such as Bobby Butler, Greg Mauldin and Adam Pineault through the program. “In the 10 or 12 years I’ve been coaching, I’m not sure there’s a player I’ve coached that’s as talented as he is. If he’s not the most talented, he’s certainly in that discussion.”

For all the accolades earned by Eichel’s mature game on the ice, his maturity off the ice is every bit the equal. Serving as captain while the team’s best player — but also its second-youngest — presents a unique challenge, but Eichel flourishes in the role, Masters said. Eichel has the respect of his teammates through his work ethic and a team-first attitude, Masters said.

Meanwhile, Eichel already has made five college visits but said he is not in a rush to commit although some other ’96-born players have begun to do so. He said he wants to take his time and make sure he knows in his heart the right decision to make.

“I’m grateful for everything that’s happened to me,” Eichel said. “I come from a humble family. I don’t like a cocky person; my friends wouldn’t like me if I was that. They like me for who I am. I don’t look at myself as big shot.

“I worked so hard for everything that has happened. My dream is to play in the NHL. You would never stop working until something happened. If you get a Division 1 scholarship or you’re a captain of a team, you have to keep a level head. If you stop working for one second, someone will go past you.” 

Jack Eichel helped the Empire League Boston Junior Bruins to a national title last season.

Jack Eichel helped the Empire League Boston Junior Bruins to a national title last season. (Photo courtesy of Boston Junior Bruins)

Eichel’s work has seen him far surpass last season’s point total in just over half the games. In 23 games with the Empire team, Eichel has 31-22-53 numbers after a none-too-shabby 15-21-36 in 40 games last season. 

“There’s a reason why he’s as good as he is and a big part of that is the time and effort he puts into it,” said Masters, who has known Eichel since he was 8 and playing on summer tournament teams. “He’s always been one of the best ’96s, but over the last several years he has continually distanced himself from his age group.

“His greatest asset is what he can do with the puck, whether he is setting plays up or finishing. He has a vicious release. His snap shot is really heavy. A couple coaches, when we’re shaking hands after a game, are talking about a shot he took. He’s a natural goal scorer, but he’s not a kid that’s going to have 40 goals and 10 assists. He’ll have 40 and 35.”

Eichel admitted to being a little nervous before his first EJHL game, especially since it was against the Kings. He said once he made a good play on his first shift, he realized he would be OK.

“I just tried to make my play, keep it simple, use my speed and shoot the puck,” Eichel said. “The guys were really helpful. They’d stick up for me or tap me on the head when I made a nice play.”

If he is nervous about the Winter Youth Olympics, he hides it well with his excitement for the event and the opportunity to wear a USA sweater for the first time. He and St. Paul’s defenseman Ryan Bliss (Bedford, N.H.) are the only New Englanders on the 17-member team that will meet in Chicago on Jan. 10 before flying to Munich, Germany, and busing to Innsbruck, Austria. Canada, Russia, Finland and Austria are the other competing nations.

“I’m pumped; I can’t wait. It should be a great experience,” Eichel said. “I plan to win a gold medal. We’re beating all the other countries.”

Around juniors

Vermont sophomore forward Connor Brickley (Everett, Mass.) and Boston College sophomore forward Billy Arnold (Needham, Mass.) were selected to join their lifelong pal Charlie Coyle (East Weymouth, Mass.), one of seven veterans of last year’s bronze medal team on this year’s U.S. World Junior team.

Coyle announced in mid-December that after the tournament he will leave Boston University, where he was a sophomore, for the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

BU sophomore Adam Clendening was one of seven defensemen to make the final 22-man roster that also has 13 forwards and two goalies.

Yale sophomore forward Kenny Agostino and Northeastern freshman forward John Gaudreau were among the final seven cuts made.

“It’s great to be doing this with Bill and Charlie,” Brickley said. “We seem to always bump into each other around the rink no matter what level. It’s a great thing for Mass. Hockey and for us to experience together.”

As kids, Brickley played for the Junior Eagles, Arnold was on the Minuteman Flames and Coyle was on the Junior Terriers. They have played against each other and with each other ever since before sharing the experience of the NHL scouting combine in spring 2010. At that draft, Coyle went to San Jose in the first round at No. 28, Brickley went to Florida in the second at No. 50 and Arnold to Calgary in the fourth at No. 108. Coyle’s rights have since been traded to Minnesota. …

The Boston Bruins’ 2011 first-round pick, defenseman Dougie Hamilton, was selected for the Canadian World Junior squad, and he was joined by his brother Freddie, a forward and 2010 fifth-round pick of San Jose. It is the first time in 30 years that brothers have been on the same Canadian World Junior team. Both also are teammates with the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagara IceDogs.

Also on the Canadian roster is former Northeastern Husky Jamie Oleksiak, the 6-foot-7 defenseman who left for Saginaw of the OHL after being drafted in the first round by Dallas. …

Former Malden Catholic High School star forward Mike Vecchione (Saugus, Mass.), now playing for Tri-City in the USHL, decommitted from New Hampshire.

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Bill Keefe can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com