Analysis: Sabres back at Square 1 in seeking to trade Eichel
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — So much for the Sabres’ so-called and celebrated “tank year” in 2014-15, when many fans openly cheered a late-season loss to the Arizona Coyotes to essentially seal Buffalo’s last-place finish.
With a patchwork roster of journeymen, minor-leaguers and youngsters, the Sabres were successful in their objective to bottom out as part of a long-term vision to start over and spur a rebuild by drafting a foundational franchise player such as Jack Eichel, who was taken second behind Edmonton’s Connor McDavid in 2015.
Six losing seasons, four coaches, two general managers and two last-place finishes later, the Sabres find themselves back at Square 1.
Eichel is on the market to complete what’s been second-year GM Kevyn Adams’ offseason slate-clearing purge to start fresh, and part ways with players expressing disinterest in remaining in Buffalo. It began with the Sabres trading veteran defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen to Philadelphia on Friday, and continued a day later with forward Sam Reinhart shipped to the Florida Panthers.
Though Adams said Saturday that he had no problem if Eichel was still on the roster come training camp in September, indications point to the face of the franchise being dealt as early as this week, and before the NHL’s free-agent signing period opens Wednesday.
Late Sunday, Canada’s Sportsnet.ca quoted Eichel’s representatives, Peter Fish and Peter Donatelli, as saying: “Our expectation is that Jack is going to be traded in the near future, and all of our discussions have been centered around that issue.”
Fish did not return a text message from The Associated Press on Monday.
The rift in what is becoming a bitter divorce grew out of what Eichel described as “a disconnect” with the team on how to treat a herniated disk that forced the player to miss the final two months of the season. Eichel favored disk replacement surgery, while the Sabres medical staff is against it, noting such a procedure has never been conducted on an NHL player.
The difference of opinion remains unresolved, leaving open the possibility of Eichel’s next team having to determine the best course of action.
The injury was but the breaking point for the 24-year-old Eichel, who has five years left on an eight-year, $80 million contract with a no-trade movement clause that kicks in next summer.
His days appeared numbered once Adams took over last summer and prepared to place his stamp on a floundering franchise. By September, teams were contacting Adams about Eichel’s potential availability, something Adams confirmed while saying he had no intention of trading the player.
Public speculation of Eichel’s status in Buffalo didn’t sit well with the team’s highest-paid player, who insisted he wasn’t the one seeking a trade.
What followed was a series of injuries, starting with Eichel breaking a rib during an on-ice session before the start of training camp, which led to the five-time 20-goal-scorer limited to a season-low two goals and 18 points in 21 games.
An internal debate over Eichel’s disk led to a series of mixed messages from the team over the seriousness of the injury and when he could return. The tide eventually turned against keeping Eichel.
Adams has been consistent in saying he respects Eichel as a player and a person.
At the same time, Adams has reiterated that he believes the future rests with a young core of developing players who showed signs of bonding under new coach Don Granato over the final half of the season and expressed a desire to be in Buffalo.
“We need to create a culture here and a foundation that is almost one of those situations where they get up in the morning and just can’t wait to get to the rink,” Adams said. “I see signs of it and that excites me. The foundation of our organization has to be built the right way, has to be strong. And I think we took huge steps this weekend.”
That core doesn’t appear to include Eichel, and instead points to centers Dylan Cozens and Casey Mittelstadt, defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and eventually Owen Power, the University of Michigan defenseman whom Buffalo drafted No. 1 on Friday.
Eichel represents a cautionary tale for franchises seeking a shortcut to a restart. Eichel was essentially Buffalo’s consolation prize, with then-GM Tim Murray hoping the Sabres would land McDavid before losing the draft lottery to Edmonton.
Murray had difficulty hiding his frustration by saying, “I’m disappointed for our fans,” on losing out on the chance to pick first.
The comment set the tone for a franchise that’s had difficulty building a team around Eichel, exacerbated by ownership’s impatience in spinning a revolving door at the management and coaching ranks.
In the meantime, all Eichel and the Sabres have known is losing, with Buffalo in the midst of an NHL-record-matching 10-year playoff drought.
Eichel voiced his displeasure following the coronavirus pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season by saying he was “fed up with losing,” while adding “it’s been a tough five years with where things have went.”
Soon, perhaps, Eichel won’t need to worry about that any longer.
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