In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t the greatest idea for then-Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray to bury the brightest prospect in the club’s modern history a couple of hours after landing him.
This was back at the draft lottery in 2015. Buffalo lost the first pick to Edmonton. That meant no Connor McDavid grand prize, but a pretty nice parting gift in Jack Eichel.
Given that the Sabres had just jumped head-first through the standing into an empty swimming pool, it probably would have been best to at least pretend to be excited. Eichel may not have been the guy you wanted, but he was the guy you had. Murray couldn’t manage it.
“I’m disappointed for our fans,” he told reporters. “We came up here with an expectation we’d probably be picking No. 2 and we’re going to deal with it.”
This is like someone getting up at her own wedding and saying, “Reggie’s brother wouldn’t date me. So, you know, I’m dealing with it. Love you, Reg.”
Then Murray complained that the league made him drive all the way to the draft lottery in Toronto to find out he’d lost McDavid, instead of just phoning him with the bad news.
After the man in charge rolled Buffalo’s karmic wheel into a ditch, things never got better. Eichel was as advertised – no McDavid (who is?), but a cornerstone-calibre player. For most teams, that would’ve been a good piece of business.
Not the Sabres. They have taken Eichel’s early golden years and turned them to tin. Now in his sixth season, Eichel has never ended a season on the right side of .500 hockey. He’s never been in an NHL playoff game. He’s never even been close.
This year, Eichel and the Sabres are performing the rarest sort of tank – the one with no plan, no objectives and no bottom.
Rumours that the Sabres were thinking of trading Eichel began floating around the league like so much flotsam from the wreckage in February.
This would be an instance of trading a future you have a pretty good feeling about for a future that is a complete blank. Eichel is the most desirable type of player in hockey – a big-bodied centre who can take over games. He’s only 24 years old. He is on a (relatively) cheap, long-term deal.
In the hockey dictionary, under “Roster Building Goals,” you’ll find Eichel’s picture. Trading him isn’t changing a losing game. It’s a transparent attempt to change the narrative. It would be admitting you’ve screwed up so badly that you need to start over, even if starting over is untenable.
Unsurprisingly, the rumours dovetailed with a dip in Eichel’s form. It’s funny how if you make a guy feel disposable, that can sometimes be reflected in his job performance. Someone should write a book about it or something.
As Eichel headed south for the winter, so did the rest of the team. Buffalo is 0-8-2 in its past 10 games. Its playoff chances stand at – let me check my algorithmic calculator here – minus-10,000 per cent.
One presumes that if the Sabres don’t win the first-overall pick next year, current GM Kevyn Adams will kick over his desk at lottery HQ, run across the stage and dump ping-pong balls all over the floor while shouting, “Take back. Take back. I call a do-over!” It would be the Sabres way.
Watching Eichel only intermittently this year, you got the feeling that Buffalo had finally broken him. That was before a New York Islander helped break him a little more by running him into the boards. Over the weekend, Buffalo’s forlorn coach, Ralph Krueger, said Eichel will be out “for the foreseeable future” with a neck injury.
Then Buffalo went out and got blanked by the Penguins on Saturday, giving them a little preview of their Eichel-less future.
It’s got so bad even reporters – who usually love these blood-in-the-water situations – are beginning to feel bad. Krueger is so close to the professional grave, he ought to prop a coffin up behind the bench and stand in it during games.
When someone asked him the other night about how much of a drag this is, his answer was a delicious blend of desperation and cliché: “It continues to be a challenge that I love, in a weird way … we need to dig deep and continue to persevere.”
If this is what “persevering” looks like, I can’t wait to see this team after it’s given up. Maybe the players will hit the ice in jeans and T-shirts and take all the third periods off so they can get a jump on the drive to the airport. It can’t be much worse than what’s currently on display.
Buffalo is in the midst of proving once again that the draft lottery is not a one-size-fits-all fix for bad teams. One or two players can’t solve all your problems. And they especially won’t solve them if you welcome them on board with a verbal backhand in the press.
Eichel hasn’t publicly demanded a trade because hockey players don’t do that. Every once in a while, some independent thinker will buck the system, and then the system will buck the hell out of him (a la Jonathan Drouin).
But if ever there has been grounds for an amicable NHL divorce, it is Eichel and the Sabres.
Trading him is a terrible idea, but it is at least an idea. As it stands, there is a numb, mindless aspect to the way the Sabres carry themselves, on and off the ice. They lose because that’s what they do. They’d like to stop, but have no clue how to do that.
It’s the rare instance where knee-jerk change makes some sense. If you can’t start the car, try rolling it down a hill and popping the clutch. Sure, you may end up wrapped around a tree. But there is at least a chance you’ll end up going somewhere.
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