Updated Rankings for the Top Landing Spots for Sabres Captain Jack Eichel
This is not the way the story was supposed to end.
When the Buffalo Sabres plucked Jack Eichel with the second pick in the 2015 NHL draft, there was little reason to believe they would still be so far from a title six years later.
After all, Eichel was so prolific in a single year at Boston University—26 goals and 71 points in 40 games—that he became just the second freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award as the nation's best college player.
And it's not as if he hasn't translated the production to the pros.
In fact, Eichel scored no fewer than 24 goals in his first five seasons and was a point-per-game player in 2018-19 (82 points in 77 games) and 2019-20 (78 points in 68 games) after becoming the team's captain.
But then 2020-21 happened.
Flush with optimism after the surprise signing of free agent Taylor Hall, the Sabres were racked by injuries and ineffectual play, plummeting toward the bottom of the league as Eichel was limited to just 21 games and Hall was dealt to the Boston Bruins at the trade deadline.
The team missed the playoffs for the 10th straight season, matching a league record.
Eichel cited a "disconnect" with the organization over treatment of a neck injury during the team's season-ending clean-out day, triggering suggestions that general manager Kevyn Adams would consider offers to move the disgruntled star rather than have the drama affect a rebuild.
It's been the top off-ice story as the league winds through the postseason, so the B/R hockey team has pored over the tea leaves to come up with updated rankings for the would-be landing spots for a proven 24-year-old who is under contract for five more years and $50 million.
Take a look at what we came up with, and drop a line with a viewpoint or two of your own.
Meanwhile, buck up, Buffalo fans. Only 80 days until the Bills' season opener.
7. Minnesota Wild
You couldn't blame Eichel if he wanted to go to Minnesota.
The Wild were one of the league's emergent teams in 2020-21, battling it out with heavyweights from Las Vegas and Colorado in a rugged West Division thanks to Calder Memorial Trophy front-runner Kirill Kaprizov.
Still, general manager Bill Guerin would have some work to do to get it done.
Kaprizov will soon join several teammates in restricted free agency, meaning a nice chunk of the team's $22.1 million in salary-cap space will be gobbled up.
But Minnesota has former Sabres draft choice (fourth round, 2009) and Buffalo native Marcus Foligno as a potential high-profile trade piece who's signed for three more seasons at $3.1 million annually.
Bundle him with a youngster—Matthew Boldy, Nico Sturm or both—and a 2021 draft pick (the Wild have two first-rounders this year) to get things started, and fill things out with another salary or two.
6. Calgary Flames
Our advice to GM Adams: When it comes to the Calgary Flames, play the family card.
Sending Eichel to Alberta would require a diligent scan of the Calgary roster to find parts worth exchanging. And in our estimation, none fit that bill more than winger Matthew Tkachuk.
The 23-year-old was drafted a year behind Eichel but has been similarly proficient in full-time duty, topping out at 34 goals and 77 points in 2018-19. He will have a $7 million cap hit before becoming a restricted free agent prior to 2022-23 and requiring a qualifying offer of at least $9 million annually.
Bringing him to Buffalo would not only make him the burly, hard-working face of a franchise in a blue-collar town but also provide frequent chances for him to square off with younger brother Brady, who's played three seasons with the Ottawa Senators after they selected him in the first round in 2018.
The Sabres and Senators are scheduled to be together in the Atlantic Division for 2021-22.
If the Flames nix the Tkachuk idea, Elias Lindholm (75 goals in the past three seasons) is another viable option for the top of the deal to go along with a prospect on the level of 19-year-old Connor Zary, who dipped his toes in the AHL waters for nine games this season and came out with seven points.
Calgary chooses 12th in the draft, so that pick would provide the cherry on top of a would-be Eichel sundae.
5. Anaheim Ducks
Here's one in which acquiring a high-end draft pick is less of an option.
The Anaheim Ducks select third in this summer's entry draft, two slots behind the Sabres, and it's unlikely the Ducks would be willing to let that slot go along with whatever else it would take to bring Eichel to Disney West.
Instead, it will have to be about raiding the cupboard.
Any conversation should begin with one of Anaheim's fleet of young prospects, most notably Max Comtois or Trevor Zegras.
The former is a 22-year-old forward drafted in 2017 who reached the NHL as a full-timer this season and responded with 16 goals and 33 points in 55 games for an offensively challenged team. The latter was drafted ninth in 2019, was a point-per-game player in the AHL (21 points in 17 games) and produced respectably well in a brief stint with the big club (13 points in 24 games) in the second half of 2020-21.
Alongside a young scorer, there's a mandate for a young goalie. Just 21, Lukas Dostal fits that description and posted good numbers—2.87 goals-against average, .916 save percentage—in 24 AHL games. Buffalo, lest we forget, was second from last in the 31-team league in 2020-21, allowing 3.50 goals per game.
Last but not least, it would take a big salary coming the opposite direction to make things work. The two biggest earners on the roster are Adam Henrique and Jakob Silfverberg. They are signed for three more seasons at $5.8 million and $5.3 million per, respectively, and have modified no-trade clauses.
If nothing else, perhaps Rickard Rakell (one remaining year at $3.8 million) is available.
4. Ottawa Senators
In Twitter-speak, Ottawa is trending.
The Senators were horrifically bad at the start of the 2020-21 season but got better and were among the North Division's best teams in the final two months.
So the arguments in Canada's capital are about whether adding Eichel—for a significant cost—would be better than simply staying the course with the "built from within" approach.
Assuming general manager Pierre Dorion is enticed by the prospect of acquiring an All-Star, you can presume Adams would start the conversation with getting a center in return—likely 22-year-old Josh Norris, a first-round pick in 2017 who had 17 goals and 35 points in 56 games in his first full NHL test in 2020-21.
The Michigan native arrived in a deal that sent Erik Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks before the 2018-19 season and is entering the final year of an entry-level contract before reaching restricted free agency next summer.
Beyond Norris, Ottawa sports a fine complement of recently added talent from drafts and trades who have reached the NHL—Tim Stutzle, Drake Batherson, Connor Brown and Brady Tkachuk—not to mention fellow centers Colin White, 24, and Shane Pinto, 20, who combined for 11 goals and 25 points in 57 games in 2020-21.
Skim a couple of those players and add the Senators' No. 10 pick in the 2021 draft to the mix, and Dorion might just have a decision to make.
3. New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils make sense for a lot of reasons.
New Jersey is building a fine array of young talent, but competing for attention in metropolitan New York requires the star power of a player such as Eichel.
General manager Tom Fitzgerald is also sitting on a pair of first-round picks in the 2021 draft at slots Nos. 4 and 30, and the team has $37.6 million of cap space with eight free agents (three unrestricted, five restricted) to get signed before the 2021-22 season.
So if Fitzgerald wants to deal, he can.
The Devils may still be smarting from their 2016 acquisition of superstar Taylor Hall that yielded precisely one playoff berth before they traded him to the Arizona Coyotes, but Eichel is five years younger and, assuming good health going forward, better than Hall was at this point of his career. Eichel has 139 goals and 355 points in his six seasons with the Sabres; Hall had 132 goals and 328 points in his six with the Edmonton Oilers.
New Jersey selected centers Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes first in 2017 and 2019, respectively, and Buffalo would want one of them in exchange for Eichel—in addition to a prospect such as the 20-year-old Nolan Foote (17 points in 24 AHL games) or 19-year-old Alexander Holtz (three points in 10 AHL games).
2. New York Rangers
No offense, Devils fans.
But while Frank Sinatra was indeed a New Jersey native, he wasn't singing "Newark, Newark."
If Eichel is looking to boost his profile, there would be no better place to do it than Madison Square Garden, where the New York faithful are anxiously awaiting a sequel to their 1993-94 title.
Like several teams already mentioned, the Rangers are flush with the sort of young, dynamic talent that Adams can inquire about in order to move Eichel to Manhattan.
They got Alexis Lafreniere with the No. 1 pick in last year's draft and Kaapo Kakko at No. 2 the season before, but it's unlikely new general manager Chris Drury would want to lose either in his first significant deal.
It's worth the ask, but if the answer is no, then 21-year-old Russian winger Vitali Kravtsov would become a must-have. He's played just 20 NHL games but was a point-per-game player as a junior and was once ranked second behind Minnesota's Kaprizov among drafted European prospects.
That's pretty good company.
Add in a young goalie (Alexandar Georgiev, 2.71 GAA, .905 save percentage in 2020-21) and a burgeoning veteran (Pavel Buchnevich, due for a raise on a deal paying $3.3 million annually) and top it off with the No. 15 draft pick this summer, and before you know it, the souvenir stands will be buzzing with anticipation.
Anyone for a "New Jack City" T-shirt?
1. Los Angeles Kings
When it comes to available prospects, a lot of teams have skin in the Eichel game.
None more so than the Los Angeles Kings.
Stanley Cup winners in 2011-12 and 2013-14, the Kings have had hard times in their banner-raising aftermath, winning precisely one playoff game and missing the tournament five times in the subsequent seven years.
But in this case at least, with great struggle comes great potential.
The Kings have stocked up on pipeline talent in the absence of postseason success, earning recognition for the league's deepest farm system in 2020 and positioning themselves to make a game-changing move with $20.5 million worth of wiggle room under the salary cap.
General manager Rob Blake has a lot of front-line cards to play when it comes to a chat with Adams, including 2020 No. 2 pick Quinton Byfield, 2017 first-rounder Gabriel Vilardi and the 27-year-old Alex Iafallo, a Buffalo-area native who's signed for four more years at $4 million annually.
Byfield is likely an untouchable from Blake's perspective, but Vilardi and Iafallo—or a less established player such as center Alex Turcotte or winger Arthur Kaliyev, who scored in his lone NHL game in February—should gets the wheels turning.
And if it comes down to it, Buffalo could take on a bloated contract such as Jonathan Quick's (two more seasons with a $5.8 million cap hit) to make it easier for Blake to part with another youngster.
Salary-cap information via CapFriendly.