The NHL’s biggest on-ice soap opera, the Jack Eichel trade derby, appears to have rounded the final turn. Last night, ESPN’s Emily Kaplan said that the Calgary Flames and Vegas Golden Knights are the finalists. Both teams are fine with the neck procedure Eichel wants but that the Sabres wouldn’t allow him to get. And both teams have the pieces. Maybe.
Time is something of the essence, as Eichel still hasn’t had any surgery, and the one he prefers still would see him miss three months after its completion. So best case scenario is he returns in February, but any more dawdling and either team would see him struggling to get up to speed for the playoffs. Which both teams have designs on (the Flames somewhat surprisingly, but we’ll come back around to that).
The snags for trading for Eichel are hardly small. While both Calgary and Vegas would put Eichel on long-term injury reserve as soon as he is acquired, to do that a team must be under the cap including Eichel’s $10 million salary. The Knights have basically no cap space, and the Flames only have about $1 million in room at the moment.
The complication for the Knights right now is that they’re missing basically most of their top six forwards. Alex Tuch had shoulder surgery in the offseason, and won’t be back for months. William Karlsson broke his foot and is out for six weeks. Max Pacioretty might have done the same, and could be out a similar amount of time. Mark Stone had a less serious injury, but only started skating on his own recently. He’s still a week or two away.
So the need for Eichel is clear, the problem is who do the Knights clear out salary wise to get him? Tuch has been mentioned, as he’s a Buffalo native, and if the Knights are going to be without a forward for months, Eichel is an upgrade on a player to wait for. But that’s not enough. Shea Theodore, and his $5.2 million salary, is another name you hear mentioned. Except Theodore very well might still be the Knights’ best d-man, though he’s had a rough start to the season (possibly due to hearing his name in these rumors). Maybe the Knights think Nicolas Hague is ready for top-pairing minutes, but Hague is the exact type of prospect the Sabres are going to ask for, with players like Tuch or Theodore being the salary ballast to make the deal work.
This is where the garbage nature of the Pacific Division once again helps the Knights. While the Oilers and Flames have gotten off to scorching starts, there’s hardly enough else around to keep the Knights from surging up the standings the second half of the season should they still be farting around then, banged-up or not. They can probably wait for Eichel to heal up stress-free. Still, missing Pacioretty, Tuch, and Karlsson for an extended length of time is going to put some distance between the Knights and where we all expected them to be before the season. They can’t just sink as deep as they want without their forwards, waiting for Eichel, and having eroded their depth to get him and think it’s automatic to zoom back up in the last two months of the season.
The Flames seem to be in a better spot to land Eichel. They have an obvious salary swap in Sean Monahan, though he would have to waive his limited no-movement clause (Buffalo is on his no-no list, as it is for all of ours). They have the prospects such as Jakob Pelletier and Juuso Valimaki that the Sabres need, as well as a couple lower level players on lower salaries to fill in the gaps on the deal and who might benefit from greater ice time in Western New York.
While losing Monahan would seem a huge deal, the Flames come equipped with MIkael Backlund, who can certainly moonlight as a second center for long enough until Eichel is healthy to not cost the Flames too much. The Flames success so far is built on their dominant top line (Tkachuk-Lindholm-Gaudreau) and the goaltending of Jacob Markstrom, which will remain untouched in a prospective Eichel deal.
Without Karlsson, the Knights are really struggling for depth down the middle. Eichel certainly solves that, but can they navigate the waters until he’s actually on the ice? And then there’s the small issue of if the Knights acquire Eichel, they’ll have somewhere between seven to nine players making over $5 million next year and beyond, depending on who’s traded, with some other players requiring raises in extensions. That’s a lot at the top end of the roster with only pocket lint for the bottom. Ask the Leafs how that tends to go.
The Flames are far more comfortable long-term, with only Tkachuk’s extension to worry about and whether or not they want to re-sign Gaudreau after this year. If Monahan is part of the trade, only Backlund, Milan Lucic (hilariously), and Markstrom are players signed for multiple years making over $5 million.
We’re almost there. Down to the wire.