After a summer standoff, Jack Eichel reported to Buffalo Sabres camp this week, promptly failed his physical—as we knew he would—and was stripped of the captaincy. It was an extremely petty move by an organization that can't seem to figure out this whole rebuilding thing.
And yet, it seems as if there is no way forward for the Sabres and their star center. It's an embarrassing situation that has spanned an entire offseason, and neither party wants to budge. It's also cast a negative light over the team as it prepares to open the 2021-22 season.
Eichel, Buffalo's franchise cornerstone and a top-10 center in the NHL, has a herniated disk in his neck and wants an artificial disk replacement surgery. The Sabres were hoping he could avoid surgery altogether, but the neck is still a problem, as the failed physical shows. The club wants him to have a disk fusion surgery.
It's a mess, but it's a mess of the club's own creation.
Eichel will start the season on long-term injured reserve. Delaying any surgery keeps him off the ice longer, which makes the Sabres worse this season and will likely affect Team USA in the 2022 Winter Olympics.
The debate in question is whether Eichel should follow the recommendations of team doctors or have the surgery he desires.
Artificial disk replacement surgery has never been performed on any active NHL player, which is why the powers that be in Buffalo are advising against it. It's a relatively new surgery that uses more current technology, and if successful would allow for greater mobility of the neck. The disk fusion surgery could require another procedure in the future and could limit the mobility of the neck. It might greatly affect his quality of life.
But the team views it as a safer bet since it has been performed on NHL players in the past.
In the last collective bargaining agreement, the players relinquished the right to choose their final injury treatment, so Eichel does not get much of a say in his rehab. Even worse, he can't get out. Eichel even changed agents, moving to Pat Brisson of Creative Artists Agency in an attempt to leave Buffalo, but he's still a Sabre.
General manager Kevyn Adams overplayed his hand. He negotiated with teams as if Eichel were healthy, asking for an NHL-ready center, an NHL-ready defenseman and one or more first-round picks. It was an unreasonable ask for a player in need of major neck surgery.
What is it the Sabres are trying to accomplish? Your guess is as good as mine. Eichel is still under contract for $50 million over the next five seasons, and a no-trade clause kicks in next season, though it would appear as though he would more than happily waive it. The rebuilding club thinks Eichel is key to returning to contention, but only a healthy Eichel has any benefit.
Instead, he's shelved and will continue to be until someone ends this stalemate and he can undergo some sort of surgery. He's drawn a hard line and says he will only have the disk replacement surgery.
Thursday morning, Adams addressed the media at the start of camp. He said he has not ruled out fining Eichel for refusing the prescribed treatment. It's a bold move that would certainly test the limits of the CBA. Adams has said ownership, Terry and Kim Pegula, are in support of him and his decision-making.
But what does Buffalo have to gain from this? Sure, a first-round draft pick and maybe a couple of prospects, but the club has done little to accrue any goodwill from its fanbase, and this debacle is doing little to improve the product on the ice. The fact that Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen each declined to deny they made trade requests before being dealt recently is telling of the situation's toxicity.
Buffalo's rebuilding efforts have been futile at best. But, hey, next year's draft class will be loaded, and since the Sabres already drafted Owen Power at No. 1 this year, maybe they'll get lucky in the lottery again and get to replace Eichel with Shane Wright. There are better, less embarrassing ways to tank, though, if that's what they're after.
Eichel's value is limited, but for the betterment of both the club and the player, the Sabres need to trade him for whatever they can get. It's unfair to keep him in this position where he is worried about his health and the future of his career. Another organization can address the controversial surgery decision.
For his part, Eichel has said he will continue to rehab away from the team so he won't be a distraction, per Adams. Even if he succeeds in his efforts to keep the spotlight on the ice, there is a void without him.
Dylan Cozens, a 2019 first-round draft pick, is slated to take over Eichel's spot on the top line, which is a big ask for a 20-year-old. Buffalo has a history of rushing prospects, and clearly it hasn't worked out well.
Casey Mittelstadt will have to play a bigger role this season on the second line. And then the depth drops off significantly. Rasmus Asplund could center the third line, and Cody Eakin will likely center the fourth. The depth is thin. Coach Don Granato got a lot out of a bad roster last season, so at least there is leadership behind the bench, but this isn't a team that will win a lot of games with the way the roster is constructed.
It's not fair to Eichel to leave him in limbo with his health; it's not fair to the team to leave this hanging over the players' heads all season; and it's not fair to the fans. The only solution is to trade him, even if he's not going to get the mega-return desired.
A divorce between Eichel and the Sabres is best for all involved.