Perhaps you’ve been in an accident where time slowed down so you were acutely aware of how your disaster was unfolding. There’s a moment when you recognize you’re in danger. You speed-dial your way through possible responses, see you’re coming up short and grab a moment to appreciate what you have before bracing for the inevitable. A new, diminished reality is milliseconds away, and you have no choice but to accept it.
According to many news reports, that’s the point the Buffalo Sabres hockey team is at with their captain and best player, Jack Eichel.
This round of speculative reporting was kicked of when Eichel expressed some disenchantment with the team during his end-of-season interview last week.
It matters a lot to fans because Jack Eichel is or was the promise of a new beginning for the Sabres. He is a generational player, someone you build a team around and who becomes the face of the franchise, like the anchor store at the mall or the signature bridge on the river.
For the most part he has lived up to that promise since the Sabres drafted him No. 2 overall in 2015. The Sabres, however, haven’t been able to build a competitive NHL team around him. Their current playoff drought of 10 years ties the league record for that particular futility. They had the league’s longest losing streak this year (18 games) and—for the fourth time in the last seven years—they had the league’s worst record.
It was OK to have the worst record if that earned you the right to draft a generational player like Eichel. In what world does having the league’s worst record now mean you trade away that generational player?
The trade rumors aren’t new. All through the just-concluded Sabres season, hockey writers routinely speculated that Eichel was on the trading block. The beat reporters in one city or another would conjure up the trade packages their hometown team would need to put together to land him. National writers laid odds on which teams were most likely to pursue him and who they might give up to make the deal happen.
And this was all based on what? Eichel’s only negative public statement that wafted into my world was his end-of-2020-season comment that he was tired of losing. And who wouldn’t be? It was an honest comment, and Sabres management took it as such, expressing nothing but loyalty to Eichel.
So it has felt like reporters were baiting the sad-sack Sabres into making another lame trade, like when they dealt their previous No. 1 center, Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues where he promptly led them to the Stanley Cup championship, the very next year.
But Eichel raised the ante somewhat in this year’s end-of-season interview, claiming a disconnect with the organization about how to handle the neck injury that ended his season. He added that he wanted to be ready to play again next year, “where ever that might be.”
Eichel went on: “You’ve got to look after what you think is best for yourself, and the organization has a similar job to do, but it’s to look after what’s best for the Buffalo Sabres…. But I’ve got to do what’s best for me, you know what I mean?”
How could what’s best for the Sabres be anything but what is best for their captain, marquee player and best performer?
There are two sides to every story. Sabres newbie General Manager Kevyn Adams claims there’s no disconnect, that Jack is asking for a surgery no active NHL player has ever had and that they’ve agreed to wait until June to make a decision on that. He reports that Eichel hasn’t asked for a trade. That they are moving forward with the players who want to be here and Eichel is on that list (at least for now).
All that sounds credible. But it’s coming from an organization that has been unable to put its money where its mouth is for more than a decade. Season that with Buffalo’s wide-right sports tradition, and every Eichel trade rumor, while tragically misguided, seems perfectly plausible.
Photo at the top of the page by Doug Kerr from Albany, NY, United States – New York Islanders vs. Buffalo Sabres – February 8, 2015, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77872227