Eichel trade closes the book on Sabres’ failed rebuild

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When Buffalo Sabres fans were actively cheering against their team during the NHL’s great tank battle of 2014-15, they were doing so with the hope that all of that losing would eventually lead to better days.

They had already missed the playoffs three years in a row, were the NHL’s worst team, and were in desperate need of a franchise-changing player. There was obvious incentive to finish with the league’s worst record that season. It would guarantee them a top-two pick, give them the best odds for Connor McDavid, and assure them of at least walking away with Jack Eichel, a fine consolation prize in the lottery that would have been a slam dunk No. 1 pick in almost any other draft year.

Either way they were going to get their franchise cornerstone, and they were going to spend that offseason adding talent after tearing it all to the ground.

Sam Reinhart, a No. 2 overall pick from the year before, was already in place. They acquired Evander Kane, who was injured at the time and out for the season, during the 2014-15 season from the Winnipeg Jets. They selected Eichel. Then they spent the offseason acquiring starting goalie Robin Lehner from Ottawa, Ryan O'Reilly from Colorado, and hiring a Stanley Cup winning coach in Dan Bylsma.

It was time to stop rebuilding and start winning.

What followed over the next six years was more disappointment, a revolving door of players, coaches, and general managers, and zero playoff appearances.

[Related: Jack Eichel saga ends as Sabres trade forward to Golden Knights]

The Eichel era in Buffalo reached its inevitable conclusion on Thursday with the trade that sent their former captain and franchise cornerstone to the Vegas Golden Knights for Peyton Krebs, Alex Tuch, and two draft picks. Whatever potential Krebs and Tuch have, there is still a far greater chance of this trade looking like a steal for Vegas in a couple of year than there is of Buffalo getting the better end of it. These trades rarely work out for the team trading the star, and that has especially been the case for the Sabres over the years.

It is a disappointing end to a failed rebuild that produced nothing close to what was hoped.

In the six full seasons of the Eichel era no team in the NHL won fewer games than the Sabres’ 176. That includes the Vegas team Eichel is now a part of, a team that (as of Thursday) has won one more game than Buffalo during that time despite not joining the NHL until 2017-18 and playing in 162 fewer games.

The Sabres were also the only team in the NHL to not make a single playoff appearance in those years (every team excluding New Jersey and Arizona played in at least two playoff series during that stretch), pushing their current playoff drought to 10 years, one of the longest in NHL history. They also picked No. 1 overall two more times (Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power) when that sort of thing was supposed to be behind them.

They literally could not have been worse during the past six years.

Eichel, for his part, was as productive as could have been hoped during his time in Buffalo. He averaged nearly a point per game offensively with a 0.95 mark that was 22nd out of 391 players that appeared in at least 300 games. That number actually increased in recent years, jumping to 1.04 points per game starting with the 2017-18 season. It is low-hanging fruit in hockey (and sports in general) to always point the finger at the top players for not doing enough when teams fail, but it simply does not apply here. The team around him stunk. Consistently. There is only so much one player can do, especially in a sport like hockey where the best players only a play a third of the game (at most) and will not always make an impact every single night.

No other player on the Sabres — current or former — came close to matching that production.

They also never adequately built a roster that was even close to contending. There were always too many holes on defense and with the forward depth no matter what they tried.

All of the veteran players they acquired for the start of the 2015-16 season. Kane? O’Reilly? Lehner? None of them spent more than three seasons in Buffalo. Kane was traded for a first-round pick that was later swapped for Brandon Montour, Lehner left as a free agent, and O’Reilly was sold for pennies on the dollar in a laughably lopsided trade that helped turn the St. Louis Blues into Stanley Cup champions.

Drafted players that were supposed to be a part of the Sabres’ next contending team around Eichel, specifically Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen, are also now gone.

Every other major move during those years backfired.

Jeff Skinner was acquired and had a monster year playing next to Eichel during the 2018-19 season and turned it into a massive contract. He has not come close to that production in the years since for a variety of reasons (injury, and also not getting any time next to Eichel in the following seasons).

They tried to sign Taylor Hall to a one-year deal last season, only to have it fail miserably, resulting in Hall being given away to Boston at the trade deadline where he immediately returned to being an impact player.

[Related: Golden Knights have questions to answer before Eichel debut]

It is like everything that has gone through Buffalo over the past decade has just completely fallen apart. Players, coaches, general managers. Does not matter what they did before or after, the time in Buffalo has just been a complete flop.

Go back five years and look at the Sabres’ top-three scorers during the 2017-18 season. It is Eichel, O’Reilly, and Reinhart. All of them in the prime of their careers between the ages of 21 and 25, all of them under team control for years, and all of them top-line players. Today, all the Sabres have to show for them is Krebs, Tuch, a couple of future first-round picks (almost certainly late first-round picks), Tage Thompson, and prospects Devon Levi and Ryan Johnson.

Not how anybody would have expected that to go. Krebs and Tuch are probably the best chance for an impact player out of that group, and it is likely that neither will be as good as the players they traded.

So that leaves the Sabres back where they started seven years ago, with one of the league’s worst rosters, still likely to be on the outside of the playoff picture, and in need of another massive rebuild to fix the mess.

By every objective measure the rebuild was a complete and total failure.

The only constant throughout all of this has been in the owners box the Pegulas have yet to put a Sabres team in the playoffs in a decade, have cycled through three GMs, seven head coaches, and now have one of the league’s lowest payrolls, finding themselves in a position where they have to add contracts like Johnny Boychuk (who will never play again) just to reach the  salary cap floor.

Grim times for a Buffalo fan base that deserves way more than what they are given from a team they have been fiercly loyal to all of these years.

Former B’s coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON – The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games on Monday night.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers on Wednesday.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

kris letang
Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

Kris Letang Penguins
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”