Times are dark in Buffalo.
After trudging through a miserable 15-34-7 season, one that saw them finish dead-last in the league, captain Jack Eichel dropped a bomb that suggests his time with the Sabres might be coming to a close.
“I’ve got to do what’s best for me, and they’ve got to do what’s best for them,” said Eichel, speaking publicly for the first time since leaving the lineup with a herniated disk in early March. “I’m only going to play hockey for so long. I’m 24 years old and only have so many years playing this amazing game.
According to Elliotte Friedman in this week’s 31 Thoughts column, Eichel is frustrated with the way his injury has been handled by the organization. Word is that Eichel wants to get a procedure done to his neck that the organization is against because it hasn’t been done on an NHL player before. Friedman goes on to say that it appears the trust between the Sabres and their captain is broken.
Undoubtedly, we’re going to hear more and learn more. But it’s hard to see how Eichel plays another game for the home team in Western New York. It’s clear that trust is broken, and arguments about medical care are much harder to fix than debates over franchise direction.
Eichel has had a miserable time in the NHL since being Buffalo’s consolation prize to missing out on the Connor McDavid sweepstakes back in 2015. Selected No. 2 overall, Eichel broke into the league and put up a 24-goal, 56-point showing in his rookie season. The team went 35-36-11 and appeared to be moving in the right direction, but everything has gone downhill since.
The Sabres finished with 78 points in 2016-17 and then cratered to just 62 points in 2017-18. They selected defenceman Rasmus Dahlin with the first pick in 2018 and jumped up to 76 points in 2018-19 and 68 points in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 but then completely imploded this year for their worst result in the Eichel era.
All told, Eichel has played six seasons in Buffalo, has 139 goals and 355 points across 375 games, and hasn’t really come close to making the playoffs. It seems likely that this is the end of the line for Eichel in Buffalo. But where will he go?
That brings us to this week’s What Would You Do Wednesday THURSDAY EDITION question. Should Ken Holland try to trade for Jack Eichel? How much would you be willing to give up to get him?
Holland will be entering his third off-season at the helm of the Oilers and, for the first time, he really has a chance to put his fingerprints on the team.
Since arriving back in 2019, Holland’s job has been to clean up the mess that Peter Chiarelli left while simultaneously patching up the roster with quality depth so that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can have a shot in the playoffs. While Holland’s eyes are ultimately locked on the long-term, it’s been important to strike a balance with the short-term so that the Oilers don’t wind up in the same situation Buffalo has with Eichel.
The biggest move of Holland’s tenure is either trading two second-round picks for Andreas Athanasiou or signing Tyson Barrie to a one-year, show-me contract. He’s done a lot to improve Edmonton’s depth but he hasn’t yet opted to make a big move. This summer, Holland will have a lot more salary cap space to operate with and can afford to make a big splash, either via the open market or trade.
The Oilers have ~$58,000,000 committed to their roster for 2020-21, giving them about $23,000,000 to work with. More money could feasibly be freed up if Holland uses a buyout on James Neal or Mikko Koskinen or gives up an asset for the Seattle Kraken to take on a bad deal in the expansion draft.
Mike Smith, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Larsson, Tyson Barrie, and Alex Chiasson are unrestricted free agents while Kailer Yamamoto, Dominik Kahun, and Jujhar Khaira are restricted free agents. Looking beyond that, Darnell Nurse is also set to become a UFA after the 2020-21 season and will be eligible for an extension this summer.
Acquiring Eichel would give Edmonton easily the best Big Three in hockey, adding another elite player to the Dynamic Duo of Draisaitl and McDavid who sit first and second in league scoring. But, of course, adding Eichel would also mean that the Oilers have $32 million, which is about 40 percent of the cap, tied into three players.
This would be virtually identical to the situation of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner at a combined $33 million against the cap. We’ve also seen teams like the Capitals (with Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom, and Evgeny Kuznetsov) and the Penguins (with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel) operate with a top-heavy Big Three and have success.
While it might be a challenge to navigate, teams get into cap hell by overpaying for mediocrity, not by paying a premium for elite talent.
What would it take to acquire Eichel? What are the Sabres looking for? It isn’t easy to find a previous situation to draw from as not many top-two draft picks who became legit stars get moved in their mid-20s.
The two most recent examples both came from Peter Chiarelli, as he moved both Tyler Seguin and Taylor Hall but neither of these situations are similar to what Buffalo has going on right now. The Bruins were in win-now mode and the Oilers were about to open what appeared to be a competitive window. The Sabres are about to dive into another rebuild.
The best example I can find from recent memory of a former top pick being moved from a non-competitive team would be Rick Nash. The Blue Jackets selected Nash with the No. 1 overall pick in 2002 and made the playoffs just once in his nine years with the team. In July of 2012, Nash was finally moved to the New York Rangers in exchange for Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Tim Erixon, and a first-round pick.
That’s two top-six forwards in their mid-20s, a first-round pick prospect from three years prior to the trade, and another first-round pick. I think that’s roughly what the Sabres should expect in a return for Eichel at this stage, especially if everyone is aware that he wants out.
Now, this is all rough and hypothetical, but, from an Oilers perspective, acquiring Eichel would involve moving on from Nugent-Hopkins in free agency and giving up a package involving assets such as Evan Bouchard, Kailer Yamamoto, and the 2021 first-round pick. It could also involve sending a contract like Mikko Koskinen, Zack Kassian, or even Oscar Klefbom back to Buffalo to help navigate the money.
What say you, Nation? Would you give up that kind of package in order to get Eichel on the Oilers? Is this the big splash that Ken Holland should make?