It is now year six of the Jack Eichel era for the Buffalo Sabres and in some ways the playoffs seem as far away today as they did when he arrived in the NHL.
That should not be acceptable to anybody.
Not to the Sabres. Not to the fans. Certainly not to Eichel.
Even after a busy offseason that saw them land Taylor Hall and Eric Staal to bolster their roster around Eichel, the Sabres find themselves in last place of the East Division and inching their way closer to what could be a 10th consecutive non-playoff season. When former general manager Tim Murray was tearing the organization to the ground as part of a scorched earth rebuild that was centered around the 2015 NHL Draft (the hope was obviously landing Connor McDavid, but a 30th place finish guaranteed them either McDavid or Eichel) that could help jumpstart the organization.
That draft coincided with the acquisition of veterans like Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane, and Robin Lehner, as well as a Stanley Cup winning coach (Dan Bylsma) to bring a new level of excitement to the team and some hope for real change in the future.
None of it worked out.
Today, O’Reilly, Kane, and Lehner are gone for pennies on the dollar, the Sabres are on their third head coach in six years, their third general manager, and the roster remains full of short-term and long-term holes.
Goaltending is a major weakness and neither Carter Hutton or Linus Ullmark is signed beyond this season. The defense is not great either. Jeff Skinner‘s contract looks worse by the day, while Hall and Staal are only one-year contracts. It also seems unlikely that either would want to re-sign given the way the season is going. They also have to deal with Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Dahlin as a restricted free agents this offseason.
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In short: The team is a mess.
That all brings us back to Eichel, the franchise cornerstone, who still has five years and $50M remaining on his contract after this season.
Given where the Sabres are this very well might be a team in need of a rebuild to correct the mistakes of its previous rebuild.
With the number of holes throughout the roster there does not seem to be a quick fix here to dramatically get things turned around in short order. They are clearly behind the pack of playoff contenders in the East Division this season, and they return to the Atlantic Division next season they will be clearly behind the likes of Tampa, Boston, Toronto, and now Florida. That does not even take into account an improved Montreal team. They have not finished with a points percentage above .500 in seven years, and if it does not happen this season (not a guarantee that it won’t, but they are not off to a good start) after the additions of Hall and Staal, what reason is there to believe it can happen next season without them?
It is fair to wonder if Eichel, who has already seen some of the best hockey of his career get wasted on an afterthought of a team, might eventually want out. While there is nothing concrete to say that he does, there is talk of him being restless and fed up with losing. There was also word during the offseason that teams were placing calls (even though the Sabres had no intention at the time of making a trade).
If we are being realistic here there are only two reasons that a team would ever trade a player like Eichel. An elite forward still in their prime years and still under contract long-term. You do not get players like that very often, and when you do you want to build around them as much as possible. But if you do trade them it is either because the player demands a trade and refuses to play for you (which does not seem to have happened here — yet), or because you as an organization are completely giving up and ready to start over.
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Eichel’s contract does not contain any trade protection until 2022-23 when a no-movement clause kicks in. It would seem logical to think that if the Sabres were going to consider it, the next year-and-a-half would be the time when they could freely negotiate with the other 30 teams (31 when Seattle enters( across the league without having to worry about a deal being blocked.
It is just such a unique situation because the Sabres ended up getting the most important piece of any successful rebuild — a true cornerstone player that is among the league’s best players. They have just so badly bungled the rebuild around him that it has rendered his value almost entirely useless. Since Sabres have not found an even an ounce of success in Eichel’s career to this point asking him to give up a few more seasons while the team retools around him (again) seems like it is asking a lot. At some point he is going to be even more desperate to join a winner.
Whether he asks out or the Sabres make the decision to preemptively part ways before that happens the odds him playing out out his contract on a team other than Buffalo seem to be getting higher and higher.
How that situation gets managed will be the ultimate test of new GM Kevyn Adams’ tenure. The previous administration botched its big ticket trade (O’Reilly) and it set the franchise back several years.
You absolutely can not repeat that mistake here.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.