The Buffalo Sabres were an absolute dumpster fire this season. They have a chance to put out that fire with the first overall pick in the 2021 NHL draft.
The Sabres were awarded the top pick in the upcoming draft Wednesday night when the lottery set the draft order. Buffalo, the worst team in the league in 2021 with a 15-34-7 record, had the best chance to receive the first overall pick at 16.6 percent.
But as for their chances to keep star center Jack Eichel? Those still seem slim. This top pick could force the Sabres into rebuild mode, and the club might be better off trading him and bringing in some significant assets that could help get the moribund franchise back on track.
This year's draft could produce another star in the same mold as Eichel, but it's unlikely. This is a strange draft; it's not that it's lacking talent, but there is no consensus No. 1 pick. There probably isn't a game-changing player who could make an immediate impact for a team like Buffalo.
Whether it's defenseman Owen Power, his Michigan teammate Matty Beniers or Swedish winger William Eklund, most of the players in the 2021 draft class are going to need more time to develop before they're ready to play in the NHL.
"We will not rush players," general manager Kevyn Adams said on a Zoom call with the media following the lottery announcement. "If we think a player is absolutely ready to step in [to the NHL] and help our team, then we will use him. If not, then we have no problem—whether it's the No. 1 pick or someone later in the draft—we have no problem saying, 'OK, let's just slow it down and do what's right.'"
Beyond just the assets the Sabres would receive for the 24-year-old center, trading Eichel would allow the organization to start over with a blank slate and a blank check if they can get all—or at least some—of the $50 million left on Eichel's contract off the books.
There is too much bad blood between Eichel and the Sabres to continue this relationship. Last season, the two parties were arguing whether Eichel should get surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck.
The feud became public when Adams told reporters Eichel and his camp wanted a surgery that has never been performed on an NHL player and the team's doctors were not comfortable with that. Eichel said there was a "disconnect" between him and the club.
The club asked him to rest and rehab for 12 weeks, and he's about in that 12-week range. Adams expects to have more information soon, but the next steps forward are still unclear.
Eichel and the Sabres appear to still be at odds with one another, with Adams saying in his Zoom call with reporters that they still do not want Eichel to have the procedure.
Center Sam Reinhart also wants out of Buffalo, saying he didn't want to go through another rebuild in his age-26 season.
To be fair, it's not another rebuild. It's still the same rebuild that featured Reinhart and Eichel as part of the very foundation of the franchise. Reinhart was drafted second overall in 2014, and Eichel was the second pick in the 2015 draft. They were the result of tanking, and they were supposed to keep the Sabres out of the lottery and get them to the playoffs.
Instead, Buffalo won the lottery again in 2018. They chose defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who made great strides in his development this season, finally showing some signs of progress.
But there has been nearly no other progress made in this rebuild over the past five years, so it's time to let go of Eichel and Reinhart—a pending restricted free agent—and start over again.
Start stockpiling picks for 2022 and 2023, when the draft classes are expected to be deeper and more impactful. Hang on to Dahlin and team him with Power. Or maybe draft Beniers, a center, to replace Reinhart.
The best player available is Power. His size, skating and defensive acumen separate him from the rest. Adams said he's inclined to take the best player available, but above all he wants a passionate group on the ice that can grow together.
"To me, this is about putting together a group of together that really care about each other, that really, truly love this organization, that love that jersey, that love this city," Adams said. "I know I've said this now for a year is that there has to be a connectivity to this organization, between our team that goes on the ice and our fanbase."
Yet the "disconnect" remains.
As painful as it is to part with a player of Eichel's caliber and to get rid of someone who once represented hope for the future of the franchise, the Sabres will be better off in the future without Eichel. And Eichel will be better off elsewhere.