By Budd Bailey
This was supposed to be a typical end-of-the-season, locker clean-out day interviews with the members of the Buffalo Sabres. The players were supposed to say that the season didn’t go as well as planned, but that they were optimistic about the future.
Then Jack Eichel took a turn at the Zoom microphone late Monday morning, and shredded those preconceptions. “Hogan’s Heroes” didn’t burn that many bridges during a television season.
In the process, Eichel changed all the assumptions about his future with the Sabres within 24 minutes – and with it, the future of the team. He did it by topping Ryan O’Reilly’s remarks in the spring of 2018 when it comes to news value. O’Reilly said in that media gathering that resembled a group counseling session about how he had lost his love for hockey because of the team’s losing ways. The veteran was traded within a few months to St. Louis – where he won a Stanley Cup with the Blues.
Eichel suffered an injury on March 7 that was later diagnosed as a herniated disk in the neck area, and missed the rest of the season. That’s a serious matter, of course. Sometimes it can heal essentially on its own, while in other cases some surgery is needed to help in the recovery process. Opinions can differ on what is the proper course, even among doctors. You might remember the Pat LaFontaine situation when doctors disagreed on the best course of action concerning his concussion suffered in 1996.
Eichel had been unavailable for comment since leaving the lineup two months ago until Monday. He’s still trying to collect information on the next step, but certainly hinted that he thought surgery was the best option.
“There’s definitely an opportunity where (it) could still require surgery,” he said. “I’m trying to keep an open mind about what could happen. I just want to fix the situation, get healthy.”
The ground splits open
Then when Eichel was asked about his future, he took an unexpected detour that revealed a rift with the Sabres’ organization.
“For sure I would say that I’m a bit upset about the way things have been handled since I’ve been hurt,” he said. “I would be lying if I said that things have moved smoothly since my injury. Yeah, there’s been a bit of a disconnect from the organization. It’s been tough at times. I think the most important thing is to get healthy and be available to play hockey next year, wherever that might be. The losing stuff takes a toll. It’s all perspective. We’ll see what happens.
“I have a lot of thinking to do in this offseason. I think that there’s a lot that I have to consider. But for now, obviously, I’m here. I’m the captain of this hockey team.”
Disputes about medical treatment are relatively common in the NHL. There are procedures listed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement on how such cases are handled. It’s not a case where the player decides what is best for him and then does it. Eichel can’t just make an appointment for an operation without the team’s consent.
“It doesn’t work like that,” said Eichel, who was becoming more animated by the minute. “I’m under contract with this team and they definitely hold a lot of cards on what I can and can’t do.
“You’ve got to look after yourself. You’ve got to look after what’s best for yourself. The organization has a similar job to do – to look after what’s best for the Buffalo Sabres. It was tough. We’re all trying to educate ourselves to the situation, find out what’s best moving forward. There have been some tough conversations. I’ve got to do what’s best for me and they’ve got to do what’s best for them. … It’s been tough at times. I’ll come out at the other end of it.”
Eichel added that the recovery time from surgery in this case wouldn’t be that long, and that he wanted to be ready when the puck dropped next season.
“Just trying to do what best for Jack Eichel in the long term,” he said.
The face of the franchise
All of this represents something of an earthquake at the end of the season for a franchise that was coming off its fourth last-place finish in the last eight years – a record unmatched in the NHL. The Sabres have presented Eichel as the face of the franchise almost since the first day he walked through the doors of the KeyBank Center. They made him the captain of the team, and handed him a rich, long-term contract. Eichel has been the center of the team’s marketing efforts, at least in terms of the players, for six years. While he’s only had two seasons with 70+ points – something that probably has more to do with the quality of his teammates than anything he’s done – Eichel still has been one of the few reasons to go downtown for a hockey game on a cold winter night.
Now, this feels like the relationship between player and team has been ruptured. Such events are never easy to solve; ask the Green Bay Packers about Aaron Rodgers right now. It’s difficult to say whether the Sabres can repair their relationship with Eichel easily. General manager Kevin Adams certainly will have something to say about all of this on Wednesday, but it was tough to come away from Monday’s news conference without thinking that there’s a good chance that Eichel has played his last game as a Sabre.
If the Sabres do look into a trade of Eichel this summer, it doesn’t come at a good time. That’s in part because the neck injury, of course, which would add to the risk taken on by a new team. There’s also Eichel’s no-trade clause that kicks in during the summer of 2022. Put those two issues together, and it sounds as if it will be extremely difficult to get 100 cents on the dollar in any transaction. Teams that trade stars usually don’t get full value under most circumstances, and these are worse than most circumstances.
There’s one other issue here concerning a possible deal. Trading Eichel would be an admission that the team essentially is starting over when it comes to a rebuilding problem. This would come from a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in a decade. The patience of the fans has been stretched beyond belief in these 10 years. Would this be the proverbial last straw when it comes to buying tickets?
The team’s bit of improvement in the final weeks of the regular season – particularly when it came to young players like Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt – provided a little hope for the Sabres’ future. Eichel’s remarks are going to erase that feeling, and raise legitimate questions about the franchise’s basic competence.
We’re not done with chaos yet, and there’s no end in sight.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)