“Listen, I’m fed up with losing, and I’m frustrated. It’s definitely not an easy pill to swallow right now. It’s been a tough couple of months. It’s been a tough five years with how things have went.”
So that was Buffalo Sabres captain Jack Eichel on a Zoom call last May, in the weeks before the team’s ownership began bending over backward in hopes of finally building a competitive team and getting their young superstar to the playoffs in his sixth season. That was Eichel, clearly disgruntled, before the Sabres fired GM Jason Botterill and signed Taylor Hall and traded for Eric Staal. Gulp. Imagine hopping in a time machine today and paying May 2020 Eichel a visit.
“Are we finally improving?”
“Well…realignment forced you to share a division with the Bruins, Penguins, Capitals, Flyers and Islanders, and only four of eight teams make the playoffs. And you’re in last place. And you’re 28th overall in points percentage. And you’re 28th in offence. And you and Hall have combined for three goals in 13 games.”
The Jack Eichel trade talk was already fervent after last season. The captain couldn’t hide his frustration with the direction of the franchise. Entering his age-24 campaign, he was burning through crucial prime years. He produced at a fringe-MVP-candidate level in 2019-20, with his pace pro-rated to 43 goals and 94 points in a full season, and the team only “improved” to a sixth-place finish in the Atlantic Division and a .493 points percentage, joining six other teams locked out of the 24-team bubble post-season tournament.
So, I’m sorry, Sabres fans, but we have to fire up the Eichel trade machine again. I know you don’t want to hear it. I know you’re among the most passionate fan bases in sports. You deserve to see your team succeed. But the Eichel situation appears to be hurtling toward a cliff. He was already unhappy at the end of 2019-20, not to mention the season prior, and we’re getting so used to him smashing his stick in frustration after losses now that it’ll be a .GIF soon. It’s only a matter of time before teams start calling Sabres GM Kevyn Adams, wondering if they can pull a heist akin to what the San Jose Sharks did in November 2005, snatching Joe Thornton just as he reached the apex of his talent.
Sportsnet insider Elliotte Friedman reported this week that Eichel indeed was restless in his situation last summer and that, while he never requested a trade, teams came calling. The Sabres were simply not ready to give up on the Eichel era and start over. But how much more will Eichel be willing to take before he formally requests a trade? The Sabres’ nine-year playoff drought is the league’s longest – by five years. It appears the drought will reach 10 in 2020-21 and tie the NHL record for the longest ever, shared by the Edmonton Oilers and Florida Panthers. The way things are trending now, Buffalo seems poised to break the record next season with 11. It’s becoming tougher and tougher to feel optimistic about this franchise’s short- and medium-term future. So perhaps Adams has to seriously entertain the Eichel offers, not necessarily during this season but definitely come summertime. As The Athletic’s John Vogl points out, Eichel is in the third year of his eight-year, $80-million contract, and a no-movement clause kicks in after Year 4. Right now marks the perfect intersection of Eichel’s prime skill years, his rising frustration and the flexibility to trade him to any team at any time.
The NHL’s history of superstar sell-off deals isn’t always kind to the team giving away the superstar. The Bruins infamously got Brad Stuart, Wayne Primeau and Marco Sturm for Thornton, who became the only player to win the Hart and Art Ross Trophies for a season during which he was dealt. The Pittsburgh Penguins got Kris Beech, Ross Lupaschuk, Michal Sivek – yes, those are real players – and future considerations for Jaromir Jagr. And on a smaller scale, it’s understandable if the Sabres and their fans fear getting swindled after the St. Louis Blues torched them on the 2018 Ryan O’Reilly trade. But for every one of those flops, there’s an Alexei Yashin trade, right? His situation became untenable with the Ottawa Senators, and they turned him into Zdeno Chara and Jason Spezza. Sometimes, you simply have no runway left with your star, he wants out, and you do the best you can to get a proper return.
Working in the Sabres’ favour is the fact they still do have leverage before Eichel’s NMC kicks in and, because he’s absolutely still at the peak of his powers, or perhaps not even there yet, the offers would be extremely generous. The New York Rangers, owners of a loaded farm system, reportedly kicked the tires on Eichel last summer. The Kings have been mentioned as suitors and may have an even deeper youth crop. If the Sabres would consider doing business with their regular-format divisional neighbours, the Montreal Canadiens are loaded with assets, too. With a player as good as Eichel, we can consider almost every team in the league a suitor, as Buffalo may receive “hockey trade” offers with high-impact veteran players on top of big packages of prospects and picks. Any type of pitch is possible for a player of Eichel’s calibre.
So the idea of moving Eichel hurts, yes. But if things aren’t getting any better in Buffalo with him in town, maybe you start pondering what you could pull in for Eichel and pending UFA Hall. You hit the reset button and build your future around defenceman Rasmus Dahlin. It’s not something Sabres fans likely want to entertain, I know, but the end of the Eichel era feels more inevitable with every loss, with every splintered stick.