It’s not that the relationship between Jack Eichel and Buffalo Sabres fans will ever be good. Their union promised too much and delivered so little that there should be bitterness on both sides. The No. 2 pick the Sabres sold out for didn’t deliver them from the wilderness that they’ve been stuck in for over a decade now. The Sabres couldn’t rise to the level that Eichel sees himself at, and then fought him over how he wanted to treat his own body. Still, Eichel’s beef is with the organization, not the fans that pinned their hopes on the promise he failed to deliver for the team, or the team failed to deliver with him — however you want to phrase it.
The other thing, the bigger thing, is that demanding a trade and getting it means you’re supposed to have moved on to bigger and better things. You’re supposed to be playing a different game now. You’re on a contender, what you’ve always wanted, what you decreed that the original team you were on could never be. You’re supposed to be above all this, which is exactly why a player would demand a trade in the first place.
So yeah, Eichel can score a hat trick in his second return to Buffalo. He can soak in the jeers and bait them on afterward. He can be gleeful about it. Except it’s probably his crowning achievement in the NHL. It’s all he’s got. It’s the closest thing Eichel has come up with to a “big” performance in the NHL.
Because it’s important to remember that last April, when the Knights really needed him to scrape into the playoffs, when they needed him to pick up the rest of the team as their other stars were hurt, when they needed him to be THE GUY that the Sabres drafted him to be and the Knights traded for, he spit up a hairball the size of a watermelon. Two points in seven games, all critical to getting into the postseason. He got his lunch handed to him by the likes of Nic Dowd. Last spring was the first time that Eichel got to play games late in the season with something on the line. He inserted his thumb squarely in his ass.
So yeah, he can rub Sabres fans’ noses in it, with his hat trick in early November. They make Hall-of-Fame cases about what you do in the second week of November, right? He may think he’s gotten something over on someone, for the first time.
But what most Sabres fans know is that Eichel needed this more than they did. This has to stand in for accomplishment. He has to make it a bigger deal than it is. There’s nothing else to put on his mantle. It’s why he has to soak it in so much, because there’s such a void to fill.
Oh, it may change. The Knights look back to their best. Eichel has played well. The rest of the division can’t seem to get out of their own way. Eichel may get to the playoffs for the first time. Maybe he’ll come alive there. That’s all possible in the near future.
But now? He has to exult in kicking a Sabres fanbase that’s still down, even with the promise of this team. He has no choice, because he has nothing else. It’s the closest thing to a true achievement he has. And deep down, he knows he’s as responsible for that as anyone. He has to be a sore winner, still wanting to brag when everyone else has moved on. High school is over, Jack. You’re supposed to have adult problems now.