DETROIT – In the NHL, recovery time of a high ankle sprain is measured in loss of games plus aftershocks.
Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel didn’t play the first 21 games of the season because of the injury and then needed an extended period to shake off the pain and feel normal in his skating stride.
“Was it another 20 games?” Buffalo coach Dan Bylsma says. “It’s a long time you deal with that injury.”
Even Eichel, 20, is unsure when he finally felt as he did in the preseason. “I think I’m 100% right now. But you can definitely still feel it,” Eichel said.
The only certainty about Eichel's recovery is that the ankle was strong enough by Feb. 1 to allow him to start playing like one of the NHL’s most dominant young stars.
With 28 points in 23 games since then, he has been the league’s most productive player. He ranks 61st in the NHL scoring race, but his .96 points per game rank 11th among players with 50 or more games played.
“He is a guy who can have the puck on his stick seemingly most of the game or most of the time he’s on the ice,” Bylsma said.
Based on how he’s played the past seven weeks, it’s easy to believe Eichel could have been a top-10 scorer this season if not for the injury.
“He’s leaps and bounds ahead of where he was last year at the start of the year,” Bylsma said. “And that’s not just in his offensive game. It’s in his whole game."
Bylsma said that if Eichel, who has 20 goals and 29 assists for 49 points in 51 games, finishes the season playing at a point-per-game pace it would constitute “a pretty remarkable season.”
His play since Feb. 1 is a reminder why he was able to challenge Connor McDavid to be the first overall pick in 2015. It was clear by the summer that McDavid was No. 1, but it was also clear that Eichel was a wondrous consolation prize.
“(Eichel) is learning to use that dynamic speed he has in almost every game,” Bylsma said.
Detroit Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin played with Eichel in the U.S. National Team Development Program and watched Eichel refine his skill.
“When he has a bad shift or a bad period, he has the ability to turn it on and to say to himself, ‘I’m going to use my talent and work ethic to beat you,’ ” Larkin said. “You’ve seen that this year. When he had his tough injury, he has come back and statistically been the best player in the league. He’s going to be a superstar.”
It’s been a frustrating season for Eichel. He saw signs of his promise and the Sabres’ potential, but a 1-5-2 stretch in March has made the Sabres a longshot for the playoffs.
“We want to be a playoff team and I want to play in the playoffs and get a taste of it,” he said. “It’s tough when you don’t get there.”