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.