It's Time for the Sabres to Face Reality: Jack Eichel Needs to Be Traded

Abbey MastraccoContributor IFebruary 19, 2021

Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel (9) skates during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders, Monday, Feb. 15, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

Following the 2019-20 NHL season, disgruntled Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen said what every Sabres fan has been thinking for years:

"Buffalo has a bright future, but we've been saying the 'bright future' for seven years now when I've been here. And I'm not sure, when is it?"

The future is still, well, in the future. It's not here yet, and that much is clear after another uninspiring loss by the Sabres on Thursday night. Buffalo might be a revamped squad this season after adding elite forward Taylor Hall and a few quality role players, yet the results are still the same. 

The Sabres are 4-7-2 and sitting in last place in the East Division. 

The expectations surrounding the Sabres were somewhat subdued heading into the 2021 season, because after years of rebuilding, fans know better than to get too excited. And they clearly were not wrong in tempering those expectations, because night after night, the Sabres continue to look disjointed, which leads to the inevitable question: Will Jack Eichel be around much longer?

Whether or not Buffalo wants to trade the 2015 No. 2 overall pick is one thing, but whether it should is another. It's time to begin the teardown in Buffalo.

Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman recently appeared on the Sabres' radio show The Instigators (h/t The Athletic's John Vogl) and said that, yes, he could see Eichel being traded. First-year general manager Kevyn Adams said he received calls about the availability of the 24-year-old captain in October. 

Adams is in an unenviable position. He was tasked with building a team around a frustrated star on the fly, and while he was able to make some notable acquisitions, they haven't been working out. There was a long layoff due to a COVID-19 outbreak, but the Sabres weren't playing well even before 12 games were rescheduled. 

Hall, the 2018 Hart Trophy winner who put the New Jersey Devils on his back and dragged them to a playoff spot that year, has not been the same since that season. His knee injury cost him much of the 2018-19 season and he was snakebitten last year, often unable to capitalize on high-danger scoring chances. 

Some of it was puck luck, some of it was good goalies, some of it could be attributed to the Devils' weak blue line being unable to get the puck up to their talented forwards. Hall made an impact after he was traded to the Arizona Coyotes, but he still struggled to produce points at a high rate. 

This season, he came to Buffalo as a surprise free-agent signing, hoping to reset his market. From the outside, it looked as though playing alongside an elite center like Eichel would help him boost his own game. 

Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

Hall also wanted the opportunity to play for coach Ralph Krueger, who was an assistant he grew close with in his early years in the NHL playing for the Edmonton Oilers. After seeing how John Hynes helped his game in New Jersey, Hall understood the impact of a quality head coach and how beneficial the relationship can be. 

But Hall has been better off on his own line. He doesn't need a center to drive the offense because he's capable of doing that himself, and the Sabres have struggled to jump-start the line with Eichel and Jeff Skinner. On paper, the Sabres now have the personnel to have two dominant forward lines, but nothing seems to be working out the way it should. 

Hall appears to be just as snakebitten as he was last season. He's shooting at a dismal 3.0 percent. Eichel's 4.5 percent isn't much better. According to Pierre LeBrun of TSN and The Athletic, Hall is interested in a contract extension in Buffalo. Maybe it's better off trading him as well, but it's worth a shot if he wants to stay. He gives the Sabres a big piece to work with. 

And what do we make of Rasmus Dahlin? The defenseman hasn't quite developed into the top-pairing, two-way threat the club hoped he would be. The Sabres are beginning to look like the Oilers did a few years ago, with all of the high draft picks and nothing to show for them. Except the Oilers have at least managed to get Connor McDavid to the playoffs twice, and Eichel is still waiting for that to happen in Buffalo. 

Trading a 24-year-old captain is a sign that the organization is not in a good place, but it might expedite the rebuilding process. The Devils traded away Hall last season, and while they're not exactly at the top of the standings, they're in a much better place than they were a year ago. And not because they traded Hall, but because Hall was the first domino to fall. Once he did, the club was able to make a series of moves that added to its prospect pool and strengthened its NHL roster as well. 

Eichel is in the third year of an eight-year, $80 million contract, and his no-move clause doesn't kick in until the 2022-23 season. The $10 million cap hit is high. It might be too high for some teams to make work, but two clubs do stand out. 

The New York Rangers seem to believe they have the pieces in place to win right away, and someone of Eichel's caliber would certainly add depth to a talented forward group. Much like in baseball, anytime a team is having trouble hanging on to a star, rumors that the player will go to the Yankees start flying. It's no different in hockey, where coming to New York and playing on Broadway provides a different level of marketability and exposure as well as the expectation of winning. 

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The Rangers also have the cap space and the prospects to be able to make a deal for Eichel, though one could make the argument that they need more help on the blue line than anywhere else. However, the Rangers are led by Eichel's collegiate coach from Boston University, David Quinn.

If they can't make a deal for Eichel midseason but see an opening in the offseason, it may entice them to keep Quinn around for another season or two. 

The Los Angeles Kings also have the cap space, and Eichel has trained in the area with Ben Bruno, as documented on the trainer's Instagram page. However, they're a few years away from being a playoff team again. The Kings finally have some developing talent after years of bare minor league cupboards. 

The Devils have some cap space to work with, and they would have even more if they could get P.K. Subban's contract off their books. Eichel, Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes would give them considerable depth up the middle and add immense talent to a burgeoning young core. Typically, the Devils tend to shy away from long contracts like Eichel's, but his age makes this a relative bargain. However, they do have some restricted free agents that will need to be extended after this season, which could preclude them from taking on a big investment like this.

Tearing down a rebuilt team is never ideal, but the Sabres may not have a choice. If they want to see that bright future eventually come to fruition, this could be their best path forward, and the best path for a player who has been "fed up" with losing.