The Buffalo Sabres look to restart the rebuild while Eichel’s injury adds questions to an enigmatic start to his career.
The Buffalo Sabres and Jack Eichel each face uncertain futures as they appear to be proceeding on divergent paths. The Sabres, having missed the playoffs each of the last 10 seasons, have moved on from former first round picks Rasmus Ristolainen and Sam Reinhart in exchange for prospects and picks. Reinhart and Eichel, both 2nd overall picks in their respective draft classes, and Ristolainen played together in Buffalo for the past 5 seasons missing the playoffs in each.
As for Eichel, a herniation of his cervical vertebrae has him weighing surgical options after rest and rehabilitation failed to repair the neck injury. Eichel missed the final 34 games of the 2020-2021 season that saw the Sabres once again finish in last place. Even when Eichel was in the lineup, the team was failing to win games and were rarely competitive. Eichel struggled to produce points from the start of the season. He did not score a goal until the team’s seventh and eighth game of the year and never scored another in the following 13 games prior to his season ending on March 7 due to his neck injury.
Before the start of the shortened 2021 season, the Sabres had tried to add veteran presence and goal scoring in Taylor Hall and Eric Staal. Hall struggled tremendously to produce points and Staal’s veteran presence did not seem to translate to increased maturity or professionalism among the rest of the roster. Ultimately both players were traded for a total return of a second, third and fifth round picks (each from playoff teams which will be late in the respective rounds) and Anders Bjork, a younger player that isn’t necessarily a prospect, but rather a known commodity with the potential for modest improvement with increased opportunity.
Eichel’s underwhelming performance has no doubt contributed to the Sabres overall poor performance. The team captain often seemed withdrawn and disconnected from the team. He made his frustrations known frequently during the season and again at locker clean out in May. His injury status, poor performance, and uninspiring leadership all bring up key concerns relating to his future value in the league. While several teams have been rumored to be interested in Eichel, no offer has materialized that has enticed General Manager Kevyn Adams enough to act.
At face value, the prospect of adding a sure fire first line center with a career highlight reel filled with slick dangles, heady assists, and elite snipes should elicit trade offers that would change the future of two (or more) franchises. But for all the accolades and jaw-dropping individual plays, the Sabres have never achieved as a team with Eichel and a myriad of other highly skilled players that have come and gone during his 5 year career.
Eichel was drafted to a team that had finished last in the league in 2015. Concurrently with the selection of Eichel with the second overall pick, the Sabres were aggressive with trades, adding Ryan O’Reilly in exchange for defenseman Nikita Zadorov, forwards Mikhail Grigorenko and J.T. Compher, and the No. 31 pick in the same draft. With Eichel and O’Reilly in the fold, the Sabres appeared to be hitting fast forward on a re-build with two top-tier centers.
However, success with Eichel and O’Reilly never came in three seasons together. Having missed the playoffs each year, O’Reilly expressed frustration with the Sabres underwhelming performance and was ultimately traded to St. Louis for two players no longer on the Sabres roster in Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka; Tage Thompson who has yet to develop to the type of player the Sabres had hoped in making him the key piece of the deal, and a first round pick that ended up being the last of the round as O’Reilly’s Conn Smythe winning performance propelled St. Lou’s is to their first Stanley Cup that same year.
A young, talented center under contract and looking to exit is now becoming an all too familiar storyline in Buffalo. As is the rotating door of general managers and coaching staffs. The damage done to the franchise by poor return for O’Reilly no doubt contributing both to Eichel’s desire to leave and the Sabres hesitancy to make a deal that is anything less than a king’s ransom.
With Eichel, however; the divorce is even messier. After suffering the neck injury in March, the Sabres medical staff directed Jack to rehab the neck with physical therapy in lieu of surgery. When surgery eventually became the only apparent path to recovery, the team directed Eichel to have a spinal fusion surgery to correct the disc issue. Eichel rightfully sought a second opinion and ultimately requested that a disc replacement procedure be performed. The Sabres have not allowed Eichel to have this surgery which has deepened the divide between player and team and further complicated potential trades.
Kevyn Adams was quoted as saying, “What’s critically important to make sure is clear is that we’re in control of this process. We have a player under contract. We don’t feel any pressure. If there’s a deal out there that we feel is the right thing for the Buffalo Sabres that’s going to help us improve – whether that’s improve right away or improve down the road, those are all the things weigh – we’d be open to it.”
For his part, Eichel’s camp has expressed frustration with the lack of movement stating, “the process isn’t working.” Further frustration comes in that the Sabres have not allowed the player to proceed with the medical treatment that he feels is best for him and his future. After consulting with a personally hired neurosurgeon and additional spine specialist, Jack seeks to have the artificial disc replacement. But, the lack of movement with the Sabres medical staff and in the trade market, Jack’s 2021-2022 season has no anticipated start date. Since the release of the statement by his agent expressing frustration with the Sabres in not moving him before free agency, Eichel has decided to change his representation, signing with CAA.
For teams interested in Eichel, his medical status undoubtedly adds a complicating layer to a potential trade. Not knowing the extent of the injury on top of a career long on highlights but short on winning results places question marks on the actual value of the player. And at this point of the offseason, the inaction of both Eichel and the Sabres to resolve the medical condition means that Eichel won’t be ready for the start of the 21-22 campaign regardless of the city he is in. Even so, the Sabres seem content to sit on the asset until they get what they want in return.
Several compromises may be in order to resolve this issue. The Sabres and Eichel could ultimately benefit by moving forward with an agreed upon medical procedure. What’s more, Eichel may need to play and play well for the Sabres before other NHL General Managers are willing to pay a big price to bring Eichel in. What is clear is the lack of progress is hurting both parties.