By Budd Bailey
Someone recently watched the recent developments concerning The Curious Case of Jack Eichel, and asked a particularly relevant and interesting question.
How does this get resolved?
The short-term answer – it doesn’t. That’s why we’re still here, talking about it months after the issue first went public and quickly became a stalemate.
As we know, Eichel suffered an injury to a disk in his neck last season. He ended up missing much of the already abbreviated campaign. The Sabres didn’t say that it was a disk problem until he was ruled out for the regular season, which is rather standard procedure in the NHL these days.
Later Eichel went public with a dispute. The team’s doctors wanted to perform fusion surgery, in which the offending disk is removed. That’s more or less the usual procedure in such matters, at least for athletes. But such surgery does leave some stress around the injured area, and that means there’s a statistically significant chance that in 10 years (25 percent) he’ll have to have another operation to relieve the strain on the area. Eichel might have to go through it yet again once his career is over, assuming he plays past the age of 34.
Jack has a different idea. He’d like to have an artificial disk placed in the area instead. There is said to be a much reduced chance of further surgery using this procedure. One of the catches is that such an action is experimental – at least by NHL standards. While the general population has been used for the artificial disk, no hockey players have gone through it. Obviously, an NHL center is much more likely to take a pounding on the back than, say, an office worker … or an NHL reporter. So there is some uncharted territory there. (Thanks to John Vogl of The Athletic for some background on the procedures).
The focal point
Eichel had the right to a second opinion, and had another examination that recommended the artificial disk. But the team’s doctors stuck to their original conclusion. And here’s the key point of the entire mess: the NHL’s doctors win every such dispute about a player’s medical treatment, because they have that right in the collective bargaining agreement. That’s important, and I’d have to think the Sabres’ phones are busy ringing with calls from the league and other teams pointing out that they should not give in on this particular point. Let’s face it – when Eichel agreed to take $80 million over eight years, that contract had an asterisk concerning medical care that was part of the deal.
What’s happened in the last four months? Not much. The Sabres apparently have tried to trade Eichel, asking for about four good pieces (players, prospects and draft choices) in return. Would you trade that much for a guy who is damaged goods right now? Me neither.
Both Eichel and the Sabres must be wondering at some level what happened to their relationship. The team certainly bent over backwards in many ways to make him happy, giving him a rich multi-million dollar contract before it was obvious he deserved one and handing him the captaincy (taken away this past week in a bit of escalation). They changed coaches (Dan Bylsma) in part to keep him happy. There were also the little marketing things, like naming him as one of the three stars when he probably wasn’t the best choice. It’s all come while some connected with the team wonder if Eichel has the type of personality that qualifies him for “face of the franchise” duty.
Then there’s Eichel, who might be asking what happened to all the love he had been getting from the team before the injury. If this turns into a situation where he goes somewhere that is a better one that the Sabres’ spot, well, you might not hear any complaints out of him. Meanwhile, the other players must be asking, “If this can happen to Jack, it can certainly happen to me.”
And so, what does happen next? This is the point in the story where the learned academic type leans back after pondering a quandary and says, “There are no easy answers.”
The Sabres do have the CBA on their side legally. If the team stayed on that position, Eichel can either get the operation done their way or sit out indefinitely. He certainly wouldn’t be happy about heading for the operating room, but at least he could be traded without fewer strings attached if the procedure took place successfully.
The Sabres could come to the conclusion that the only way to be sure he can be a tradable asset (we’ll assume for good reason that Eichel is outta here at the end, no matter what) is to give in on the procedure. It would be a sign that they are willing to take one last big step to satisfy him, even if the other owners would stop speaking to the Pegulas at cocktail parties indefinitely. Vogl has argued that everyone deserves to receive the medical care they want, especially on the tough calls. That’s certainly a worthwhile position morally, although the accountants might not give that much weight in their deliberations.
Then there is the “out of the box” thinking. Could the Sabres work out some sort of very conditional deal, with all sorts of triggers for improved or extra draft choices if Eichel hits certain standards in his play (games played, top 10 in scoring, whatever)? Maybe. It would essentially be the chance to dump the problem on someone else. Perhaps there are other options, but they certainly would come with price tags and penalties of various types.
And all of this comes with Sam Reinhart, Linus Ullmark and Rasmus Ristolainen playing for other teams this season, with Eichel out of the Buffalo lineup for one reason for another. Remember, the Sabres finished last with them in the lineup for the most part last season. What will they do without them all? They will lose, a lot.
The Sabres, of course, will sell the future. Hard. Because they have little choice. The best the fans can hope to see is a team that grows up together in the coming years, because the growing pains this season are liable to hurt more than a pain in the neck – at least for everyone but a certain center.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)