If you want to know why the Buffalo Sabres have the second-worst record in the National Hockey League and are on pace to missing the playoffs for the 10th straight season, don’t bother looking at the spotty goaltending or the leaky defence or an injury list that has been filling up with COVID-related absences.
Instead, gaze up at their fallen stars.
Thirteen games in, Jack Eichel has scored twice. Taylor Hall has scored once. And Jeff Skinner hasn’t scored at all.
Combined, a high-paid trio that is earning $27-million this year has one even-strength goal and nine even-strength points.
That, more than anything else, is why the Sabres have gone four games without a win and are now nine points back of the Washington Capitals for the final playoff spot in the East Division. That is why they are rubbing shoulders with the rebuilding Ottawa Senators at the bottom of the overall standings.
And that is why the Eichel trade rumours are once again heating up.
You need your best players to be your best players in order to win in the NHL. And in a salary cap world, it’s even more important that your highest-paid players give you a return on your investment.
Edmonton is paying Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan-Nugent Hopkins the exact same amount of money that Buffalo is paying its Big 3. Except, with the Oilers’ Big 3 having scored 26 goals, they are getting more than their money’s worth this year.
The same thing is happening in Toronto, where Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares have a combined salary of $33 million and a combined goal total of 30. Meanwhile, Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak have combined for 22 goals with a cap hit that is $7-million less than what Buffalo is paying it’s Big 3.
Eichel, who has 12 points in 13 games, might not be the problem with all that has gone wrong this year. At the same time, he hasn’t been part of the solution in the way that he was a year ago, when he scored 36 goals and 78 points in 68 games.
None of the top earners have been.
Hall, who was signed to an $8-million contract, was supposed to be the MVP winger that Eichel has never had. But he hasn’t scored since the first game of the season. Skinner, who’s $9-million cap hit makes him the highest-paid fourth-line forward in the NHL, hasn’t scored in almost 12 months.
And they are feeling it.
Thursday’s 3-1 loss to the Capitals, following 3-0 and 3-1 losses to the New York Islanders, was the third straight game where Buffalo failed to score an even strength goal.
“One of my biggest takes out of that game yesterday was the fragile psychological state of the team right now,” said head coach Ralph Krueger, who wants the players focused, but not squeezing. “And managing that properly so that there is an edge, but that the edge doesn’t go over to being too tight, which is exactly what is our biggest enemy at the moment.”
They are “squeezing their sticks too hard,” added Krueger, who a day earlier was talking about “persistence and character” and “to stick with it.”
Was that last part directed towards fans, who have already suffered through a decade’s worth of failure? Or was it towards Eichel, whose impatience and frustration seems to be growing with every game and every wasted year that he continues to spend in Buffalo.
This is Year 6 for the No. 2 overall pick. He’s yet to make the playoffs. He hasn’t even come close. There’s been no baby steps, no signs of growth. Nothing. And it’s wearing on him.
At the end of last season, when Buffalo missed the playoffs that had been expanded from 16 to 24 teams, Eichel said, “I’m fed up with the losing and I’m frustrated. It’s been a tough past couple of months and a tough past five years.”
Eichel has not spoken to reporters since earlier in the week, but how do you think he is feeling now?
How long before he does what Patrik Laine and Pierre-Luc Dubois both did and tells his agent that he wants to be traded to a team that knows how to build around a superstar? And how long before GM Kevyn Adams decides to roll the dice and see what he can fetch for a 24-year-old who is in the prime of his career?
After all, it’s not like Buffalo hasn’t tried everything else.
Since selecting Eichel with the No. 2 overall pick in 2015, the Sabres have fired two coaches and two general managers. They’ve tried rebuilding through the draft and spending to the cap. They’ve signed veterans, reclamation projects and performed both major and minor surgery on a roster that simply refuses to get better.
When Eichel was a rookie, Buffalo acquired Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane and goalie Robin Lehner and finished 23rd-overall. Two years later, all three were gone and the Sabres ended up as the worst team in the league. After drafting Rasmus Dahlin with the No. 1 pick and trading for Skinner in 2018, they improved to 27th.
Last year, after finishing in 25th place, the Sabres signed Hall to a one-year contract and traded for Eric Staal in hopes of making Eichel happy and making a push for a playoff spot. But one month into the season, this team finds themselves itself in a familiar spot.
In a division that incudes Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh and the New York Islanders, it’s hard to see how Buffalo will sneak into a playoff spot. Right now, it’s difficult to see them vaulting past the Devils or New York Rangers.
And if you’re a fan of the team, it’s becoming impossible to see how Eichel will stick it out for another five years.