Thanks to the haphazard scheduling of this NHL season and the need to make up games lost to COVID protocols and the virus itself, it’s hard to mark exactly when the season ends for a lot of fans. Some teams are already in the barn, while others still have a handful of games to go. Which leads to pretty hilarious optics like today where the Buffalo Sabres are having their exit interviews and post-mortems while there’s still a full slate of games scheduled for tonight. It’s even more eye-popping when it basically confirms that Buffalo’s best player, Jack Eichel, would rather bathe with screaming eels than return to the Sabres next year.
Generally, these exit-pressers are a pristine display of hockey-speak, where everyone tries to say nothing while filling recorders with cliches that the writers could have just put down from memory. Gotta work harder, need some more bounces, believe in the guys in this room, etc. Eichel wasn’t much interested in any of that.
The headline: Alongside Eichel’s dissatisfaction with playing for an incompetently-run also-ran in a blast crater of a city, there’s a dispute about his health and medical care:
Eichel only appeared in 21 games, and hasn’t suited up since March 7th due to that neck problem, but the team’s insistence, at least according to Eichel, that he couldn’t have surgery is a strange one.
It’s been known for some time that Eichel was likely to ask out of Buffalo sometime soon. Did the Sabres think surgery and its recovery that would certainly bleed into most of the summer if not next season would lower his trade value? Do they think this helps? Certainly any team inquiring about Eichel is going to want detailed records of just how bad this herniated disc is. Then again, anything involving the neck, you’d think both team and player would want to be as careful and thorough with it as possible, especially when that player is just 24.
Eichel wasn’t finished, though:
This is probably the quote the hockey press will jump all over and use as a cudgel to beat Eichel over the head with the “selfish” label, as well as “dressing room cancer” and “not a team player” and “not good in the room.” Nothing in hockey is worse than “not being good in the room.” The Room is everything. You cannot sully The Room. The Room is where Cups are won and lost, where men are made and legends born and scoundrels found out. The Room is all. At least in hockey it is.
But Eichel is absolutely 100 percent correct. Especially after he feels they’ve mistreated what is a pretty serious injury, what exactly does he owe the Sabres? He has spent six years toiling for an organization that has provided nothing alongside him, aside from Jeff Skinner’s boatful of goals that no one cares about. It’s a team that has insisted on paying Rasmus Ristolainen premium money for a defenseman and he spends most nights looking like a painting Dali did while drunk. He has never sniffed the playoffs in six years, and the Sabres look a few years more away from doing so. Is he really supposed to wait another three years or so?
Certainly he’s not hiding his desire to be elsewhere much:
Eichel is almost certainly keenly aware that there’s a big-market team with an unhinged owner on the warpath desperately trying to soup up/destroy a carefully planned out rebuild some 370 miles to the Southeast known as the New York Rangers. The Rangers have been rumored to have hotly chased Eichel before in a trade, and this will do nothing to stop it. Lord knows they have more than enough pieces to get it done. And they won’t be the only ones. The Wings have been stuck in rebuilding hell for years and probably need a jumpstart. Montreal has cried out for a #1 center since the days of...Jesus Christ, is it Saku Koivu? Tomáš Plekanec? Does he even count? The Hawks need to start planning their post-Jonathan Toews life at center. This list could grow in a heartbeat come the draft.
As for the Sabres, though they have five picks in the first three rounds coming up (they traded another 3rd rounder away for Jimmy Vesey, which gives you some idea of the level of genius at work here), they need a lot of things before they’ll be good again. While Eichel is the rare player that you can pivot an organization around, or should be, he’s also the rare player you could ship out and get multiple, NHL-ready pieces for. Which appears the only route the Sabres are going to have available to them, if Eichel is to be believed.
It didn’t appear it could get worse for the Sabres, but this isn’t Eichel kicking them when they’re face down in the gutter. It’s the team kicking itself.