Can you technically rebuild something if you never built anything in the first place? It’s just a “build” then, right? This being the Buffalo Sabres, it’s even arguable that anything gets constructed in the first place. It’s just that building in your neighborhood that’s been four or five different restaurants or bars and none of them seems to stick more than a few months. It seems like a good location, and everything around it does well, but every few months you walk by and all the lights are off and the space is cluttered with miscellaneous junk. Maybe it’s a front for something else, maybe it’s cursed, maybe it’s just an unfathomable run of moron custodians, but whatever it is, nothing ever works. It’s that place.
It’s not really news, because we’ve known this was coming for a while. But on the opening day of Sabres camp, an occasion to be mourned more than celebrated, Jack Eichel failed his physical and was stripped of the captaincy. Which makes it quite clear he won’t play for the Sabres again. Which is also not much of a surprise, as he’s made it clear he doesn’t want to anyway.
We’ll separate these out. First: Eichel’s injury, which is one of the pillars of his distaste for the Sabres and his desire to leave. He had a herniated disc in his neck. The Sabres have wanted him to get fusion surgery. Eichel wants a different procedure, a disc-replacement surgery. The Sabres have not sanctioned that, mostly because it’s never been done on a hockey player before. Eichel prefers it because of less risk of complications down the road, which is understandable.
Even if Eichel were healthy, it is likely he would still want out, because the Sabres have been cut adrift to the Isle of Uselessness in the NHL, which isn’t easy to do. Eichel has played six seasons, and the Sabres have never been within 15 points of a playoff spot in those seasons. They might as well play on Mars, which would be slightly warmer in the winter at least.
The promise of getting Eichel second overall behind Connor McDavid is beyond ash at this point. Free agent signings haven’t worked (Kyle Okposo), big trades haven’t worked (Ryan O’Reilly, who then went to lead the Blues to a Cup as soon as he could escape these depths of hell, and Jeff Skinner who continues to score goals that no one will hear), other draft picks have failed to lift the Sabres out of this (Sam Reinhart, Casey Mittelstadt, Rasmus Dahlin). This team just never gets out of the mud whether it’s disappointing veterans or young goalies who fail to deliver or coaches being blindfolded or whatever else.
So the Sabres have to turn to starting all over again, except they never got out of the starting blocks the first time. And the one chip they might have had to kick start the process isn’t going to net them much at all. No team is giving up a lot for Eichel, 1.) Because his neck might be silly putty at this point and, 2.) They know the Sabres have to get rid of him. They’re going to get fleeced, and really they can’t do much to start building the next good Sabres team (I have vague memories of one before, but records from the time are hazy) until they get a top-two pick in next year’s draft. Which is where they found themselves six years ago. Which is where they found themselves three years ago, when they got Dahlin. Teams are supposed to leave this place, and yet the Sabres are still the guy on the couch asking if there’s any beer left.
Eichel’s position isn’t that much greater. Wherever he goes is going to have to be amenable to the procedure he wants, which again, has never been performed on an NHL player. He still has five years and $50 million on his deal, so even if a new team gives up very little in a trade, they’re on the hook for that money. Maybe the LTIR savings is attractive enough if Eichel is in and out of the lineup, but it’s still a big risk. When he’ll play again this season, no one knows. Or he could just have the more customary fusion surgery for a new team, which would be the ultimate middle finger to the Sabres. But that seems unlikely given how hard he’s fought for this.
So the Sabres will move on with their other No. 1 pick in Dahlin and really not much else. It’s at the very base of square one. Eichel will eventually be moved for nothing much, and whether or not he can get his career back to where it was before his injury, no one is happy — which has been the Sabres’ motto since 2007.
Boy, the Bills had better be good.