Sabres back at Square 1 in seeking to trade Eichel

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — So much for the Sabres’ so-called and celebrated “tank year” in 2014-15, when many fans openly cheered a late-season loss to the Arizona Coyotes to essentially seal Buffalo’s last-place finish.

With a patchwork roster of journeymen, minor-leaguers and youngsters, the Sabres were successful in their objective to bottom out as part of a long-term vision to start over and spur a rebuild by drafting a foundational franchise player such as Jack Eichel, who was taken second behind Edmonton’s Connor McDavid in 2015.

Six losing seasons, four coaches, two general managers and two last-place finishes later, the Sabres find themselves back at Square 1.

Eichel is on the market to complete what’s been second-year GM Kevyn Adams’ offseason slate-clearing purge to start fresh, and part ways with players expressing disinterest in remaining in Buffalo. It began with the Sabres trading veteran defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen to Philadelphia on Friday, and continued a day later with forward Sam Reinhart shipped to the Florida Panthers.

Though Adams said Saturday that he had no problem if Eichel was still on the roster come training camp in September, indications point to the face of the franchise being dealt as early as this week, and before the NHL’s free-agent signing period opens Wednesday.

Late Sunday, Canada’s quoted Eichel’s representatives, Peter Fish and Peter Donatelli, as saying: “Our expectation is that Jack is going to be traded in the near future, and all of our discussions have been centered around that issue.”

Fish did not return a text message from The Associated Press on Monday.

The rift in what is becoming a bitter divorce grew out of what Eichel described as “a disconnect” with the team on how to treat a herniated disk that forced the player to miss the final two months of the season. Eichel favored disk replacement surgery, while the Sabres medical staff is against it, noting such a procedure has never been conducted on an NHL player.

The difference of opinion remains unresolved, leaving open the possibility of Eichel’s next team having to determine the best course of action.

The injury was but the breaking point for Eichel.

His days appeared numbered once Adams took over last summer and prepared to place his stamp on a floundering franchise. By September, teams were contacting Adams about Eichel’s potential availability, something Adams confirmed while saying he had no intention of trading the player.

Public speculation of Eichel’s status in Buffalo didn’t set well with the team’s highest-paid player, who insisted he wasn’t the one seeking a trade.

What followed was a series of injuries, starting with Eichel breaking a rib during an on-ice session before the start of training camp, which led to the five-time 20-goal-scorer limited to a season-low two goals and 18 points in 21 games.

An internal debate over Eichel’s disk led to a series of mixed messages from the team over the seriousness of the injury and when he could return. The tide eventually turned against Eichel.

Adams has been consistent in saying he respects Eichel as a player and a person.

At the same time, Adams has reiterated that he believes the future rests with a young core of developing players who showed signs of bonding under new coach Don Granato over the final half of the season and expressed a desire to be in Buffalo.

“We need to create a culture here and a foundation that is almost one of those situations where they get up in the morning and just can’t wait to get to the rink,” Adams said. “I see signs of it and that excites me. The foundation of our organization has to be built the right way, has to be strong. And I think we took huge steps this weekend.”

That core doesn’t appear to include Eichel, and instead points to centers Dylan Cozens and Casey Mittelstadt, defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and eventually Owen Power, the University of Michigan defenseman whom Buffalo drafted No. 1 on Friday.

Eichel represents a cautionary tale for franchises seeking a shortcut to a restart. Eichel was essentially Buffalo’s consolation prize, with then-GM Tim Murray hoping the Sabres would land McDavid before losing the draft lottery to Edmonton.

Murray had difficulty hiding his frustration by saying, “I’m disappointed for our fans,” on losing out on the chance to pick first.

The comment set the tone for a franchise that’s had difficulty building a team around Eichel, exacerbated by ownership’s impatience in spinning a revolving door at the management and coaching ranks.

In the meantime, all Eichel and the Sabres have known is losing, with Buffalo in the midst of an NHL-record-matching 10-year playoff drought.

Eichel voiced his displeasure following the coronavirus pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season by saying he was “fed up with losing,” while adding “it’s been a tough five years with where things have went.”

Soon, perhaps, Eichel won’t need to worry about that any longer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.