BUFFALO, N.Y. — Jack Eichel has switched agents, been stripped of his captaincy and likely played his final game for the Buffalo Sabres.
Eichel’s future, however, remains in limbo due to a stalemate over how to treat a herniated disk that has sidelined him since March.
What began with Eichel revealing in May he felt “a disconnect” between him and the team over treating the injury has five months later developed into an open sore with the new season opening next week. The situation this week alone drew attention from the NHL’s highest level, its players and legal scholars debating whether Eichel is being treated fairly.
Without fixing blame, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman weighed in by calling it “a terrible situation,” during an interview on Sportsnet 590-The Fan radio in Toronto. Vegas goalie Robin Lehner, a former Sabre, took to Twitter and questioned the NHL and the Sabres by writing: “Is it good to keep a generational player out of the league? His body his choice. Do what’s right.”
Lehner then took on the NHLPA by tagging the union in a note asking why the union and fellow players remained silent in defending Eichel’s freedom of choice.
The crux of the dispute revolves around NHL teams having the final say over treating player injuries.
Eichel prefers having disk replacement surgery. Sabres doctors say that procedure has never been conducted on an NHL player and instead favor fusion surgery.
Unless the Sabres change their recommendation, Eichel has no recourse but to either have fusion surgery, or continue sitting out while his injury goes untreated.
The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement says teams are required to provide “serious consideration” to a player’s choice of a second opinion, but otherwise have the final say on treatment. The CBA does not provide the option of resolving disputes through third-party arbitration.
The issue could come to a head should the Sabres suspend Eichel without pay. Such a move would almost surely lead to the NHLPA filing a grievance, which neither side prefers because of the precedent it could set in either affirming or negating the CBA language.
Players’ rights on treating injuries vary across North America’s four major professional sports.
In the NFL, the onus is on the team to show a player’s preferred treatment is not medically necessary. Major League Baseball’s clause is relatively vague in “urging their constituents to agree upon a qualified third physician expert” to resolve disputes.
In the NBA, a panel of three doctors— one picked by the team, another by the union and a third selected by the first two consulting doctors — would arbitrate such a dispute.
The NHLPA has made a few inroads over the years to change the CBA language. Last summer, the NHL budged by agreeing to allow players to seek second opinions from specialists not on the league’s approved list of doctors.
Eichel’s situation is relatively unique in sports because of the nature of the injury, and places a legal emphasis on a patient’s rights, said Dan Lust, a New York-based attorney who specializes in sports law.
Lust noted disk replacement surgery has been a standard practice in treating such injuries, while acknowledging the Sabres have a case in raising the point it’s never been performed on an NHL player. Whatever the details, he said the dispute reflects poorly on the Sabres and the NHL.
“They’re trying to force this down the player’s throat,” Lust said. “I don’t think there’s much of a win from a PR perspective with the Sabres. You lose either way, right? You lose your star player or you trade your star player for pennies on the dollar.”
Trade discussions have picked up since Eichel’s new agent, Pat Brisson, entered the picture last month. Brisson has worked with Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams in clarifying Eichel’s medical status with prospective trade partners.
Adams is open to trade offers with conditions applied based on the number of games Eichel might play once healthy, a person with direct knowledge of discussions told The Associated Press on Friday on condition of anonymity because the talks are private.
Trading Eichel is complicated because of the uncertainty of his health and because of the five years left on his eight-year, $80 million contract.
One condition might feature the Sabres picking up part of Eichel’s contract to ease a team’s salary-cap concerns. Another condition for Eichel would likely require the team acquiring him to agree to his preferred surgery.
It’s also possible a trade might have to wait to reduce Eichel’s salary cap hit for the remainder of the season for teams at or near the NHL’s limit.
“What makes it fascinating is it’s a game of chicken that has already gone on longer than it should have given his medical timetable to return,” Lust said. “We’ve blown past the time frame that would have made sense for both sides to get it done.”